With so many airlines around the world grounded and downsizing, Eastern Airlines has stayed busy and is expanding. The fledgling airline which just launched in January has become the leading carrier working in partnership with the State Department to bring Americans home using its fleet of 767 aircraft.
Gautam Agarwal, a digital nomad who found himself stuck in Argentina at the start of the crisis, took one of these flights to return home to the US. He was kind enough to share thoughts and photos from his experience on the flight from Buenos Aires to Miami so we could put together this detailed trip report.
What is Eastern Airlines?
Before diving into this trip report, we should probably get something out of the way. What is Eastern Airlines?
This is not Eastern Air Lines, the legacy US carrier the operated until 1991. The modern iteration of Eastern relaunched in January and was intended as a lifestyle brand offering low-cost flights aimed at adventurous travelers to up and coming South American destinations.
When the Coronavirus crisis hit, Eastern was only operating one route: two weekly flights New York JFK and Guayaquil, Ecuador. But they had plans to add new routes to other niche destinations in Latin America.
Instead, the Coronavirus crisis hit and the revived brand has found itself thrust into a new role.
In partnership with the State Department, Eastern has brought home thousands of Americans. Its small fleet of eight 767 aircraft have operated repatriation flights from across Latin America including Ecuador, Grenada, Guyana, Argentina, Guatemala, Panama, and Paraguay. It’s become one of the primary carriers operating repatriation flights.
The flight Gautam booked was one of these on a Boeing 767-300 aircraft.
Booking with Eastern Airlines
Gautam booked his ticket after receiving a notification from the US Embassy that Eastern would be operating the flight.
Tickets were sold on the carrier’s website. A fare from Buenos Aires to Miami was $1,947 for Eastern’s “premium” lie-flat product.
Eastern sells seats on repatriation flights for set prices. In this case, upgrading from an economy class ticket was just $300 more. An easy decision for Gautam. He notes that “you get significantly more space, a lie-flat seat, get to board peacefully and disembark first. Your exposure to people is also very limited which is helpful given the current times.”
Check-in & Boarding at Buenos Aires Airport
The airport experience was surreal. While demand for travel and flights has begun to recover in the United States and Europe, Argentina is still largely grounded.
With almost no flights, the usually hectic Ezeiza International Airport in Buenos Aires was a ghost town. Practically everything closed.
There was only one counter open for check-in so the process took a while. There were two lines separating coach and premium passengers. Gautam waited about 10 minutes in the premium line to check-in.
In a sign of the times, temperatures were checked before entering the check-in area. “Main security was a breeze. They didn’t care, didn’t have to take out computers or anything.”
Of course, with the airport nearly deserted and very few passengers, practically everything was closed including lounges. McDonald’s and Starbucks were open landside. After security, the only refreshments available airside were for purchase from vending machines.
Eastern Airlines Cabin and Seat
The plane was boarded through the front-center doors meaning premium class passengers turned left to board.
The business “premium class” cabin had lie-flat seats in a 2-2-2 configuration. Out of 30 business seats, 27 were taken.
Premium class seating was split across two cabins with a larger 18 seat cabin ahead of a smaller 12 seat cabin. Gautam was seated in seat 1B in the larger cabin which he notes was quite comfortable: “The first row was by far the best because it had significantly more legroom. I am 5’9” and I could not come close to maxing out my legroom.”
The larger cabin was more spacious and airy, and plenty of room was available in the overhead bins. Additional space was provided below the armrest in the seat which was enough to store a phone, wallet, and passport.
The seats were comfortable enough and allowed Gautam to get some rest in angled lie-flat mode. But given the lack of direct-aisle access from every seat, those in window seats could have trouble going to the bathroom when needed. “If you go into lie-flat mode, it’s a bit tricky for the person sitting on the window seat to get out. They have to either climb over you (which isn’t easy given the angle) or get the seat lowered.”
Economy class was in a 2-3-2 configuration and looks significantly less comfortable. It was about 90% full for the flight with little room for social distancing.
Eastern Airlines Business Class Cabin Service
Service onboard the flight left a lot to be desired, but let’s remember this was a repatriation flight. Gautam describes it as “basic” with the flight attendants “doing the bare minimum.”
However, about 30 minutes after takeoff, an older man felt sick onboard. The crew took care of him including administering oxygen and moving him from economy to business while physically supporting him despite fears of the virus.
No in-flight entertainment, wifi, or amenity kits were provided.
Eastern Airlines Food Service
If you’re flying Eastern Airlines, you should definitely plan to pack your own food even in business. Gautam describes it as “probably the worst food I have been served on a long haul.”
Lunch was served after takeoff, consisting of a tiny ham and cheese sandwich in saran wrap with a choice of Doritos or Lays chips. No trays, plates, or flatware of any kind were provided.
Gautam reports that he didn’t even receive a napkin with his meal and had to request one. He declined the chips and ended up not even eating the sandwich.
Dinner was more of the same. They served the same ham sandwich along with a snack box. The snack box contained crackers, almonds, fruit gummies, and some sauce.
Gautam notes that he understands the flights exist purely to get American citizens back home safely.
“I was not expecting business class service but the food service was comically basic. They don’t even give paper napkins along with the food. I was told to expect basic service so I had packed my lunch, but I was still surprised by how subpar the food and the service was.”
The Eastern Airlines flights are being operated in the context of repatriation. There’s a paucity of flight options and other carriers have been unwilling to operate flights.
Despite accusations of “price-gouging desperate Americans”, Gautum doesn’t feel that the $1,947 for a lie-flat seat was unreasonable. The added cost of only $300 to fly business instead of economy was a no-brainer for him that provided “significantly more space, a lie-flat seat, get to board peacefully and disembark first. Your exposure to people is also very limited which is helpful given the current times.”
The product is clearly rough around the edges and the company is still gaining its footing during a difficult time for the global industry. Eastern Airlines planned to launch as an “adventure lifestyle” brand with limited, low-cost flights to destinations appealing to young travelers. Instead, they’re operating repatriation flights during a global pandemic.
Given that context, even the unpolished service seems acceptable for now. But we’d probably never choose to fly ‘the new Eastern’ during normal times.
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