Lost Times: Remembrance
Of Air Shuttles Past
THURSDAY, NOVEMBER 11, 2021 -- Regardless of whether you translate À la recherche du temps perdu as "Remembrance of Things Past" or the more accurate and literal "In Search of Lost Time," I am sure that you don't think of me in the same breath as Marcel Proust.

Which is good since Proust, who died in 1922, never flew the old Eastern Air Shuttle--and Shuttles are the things past that I will remember this week.

In case you missed it--and American Airlines fervently hopes you did--American and JetBlue Airways announced this week that JetBlue will take over all flying on the New York/LaGuardia-Boston/Logan route. That means half the old Eastern Shuttle service, which made its way to American via the Donald and US Airways, will be gone. American will continue to operate LaGuardia-Washington/National for now, but that, too, may soon disappear.

I hate "av geek" stuff, but I will miss the Eastern Air Shuttle. In its heyday, from the early 1960s through early 1980s, the Eastern Shuttle was one of the few things in business travel that deserve a Proustian recovery of memories.

Yes, there were lovely shuttle-like options in the California Corridor and you may have fond memories of PSA or AirCal. There remains a gloriously competitive flying market between Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. A few other cities have had shuttle-like operations, too.

But nothing was ever as easy as the Eastern Shuttle. Every hour on the hour, as early as 7am and as late as 10pm, Eastern ran flights between LGA and DCA and LGA and Logan. If the plane filled up, Eastern rolled out a "second" section and another aircraft. On Thanksgiving Weekend getaway days, Eastern might roll out four or five "extra sections" during some hours. On Sunday, December 1, 1968, Aviation Week contemporaneously reported that Eastern Airlines carried 21,760 passengers on 94 scheduled Shuttle flights and an astounding 197 ad hoc "second" sections.

It worked seamlessly because the Eastern Air Shuttle took no reservations. It had no assigned seats. It issued no real tickets. You showed up and, when the flight was called, you boarded and grabbed a seat--and hoped the middle one stayed empty. You paid during the flight as stewardesses trundled down the aisle with a payment trolley. Almost no one checked luggage. Few even carried on much.

There was no in-flight service. Literally none. No coffee, no soft drinks, no booze, no food, no snacks. Not even bottled water. Since flights were fast--sometimes as brief as 45 minutes from gate to gate if runways and tarmacs were clear--you didn't care. You did not even mind the distant, shuttle-specific gates at DCA and Logan or the leaky old Quonset hut that served as Eastern's LaGuardia Shuttle hub.

There was also no competition. Almost literally none. Launched on April 30, 1961, Eastern carried a super-majority of the traffic on the Boston and Washington routes almost immediately. It wasn't until 1980, at the dawn of deregulation, that Frank Lorenzo decided to fight the Shuttle with a carrier called New York Air.

No one really cared about competition during the years Eastern ran its monopoly. We'd bitch about Spartan conditions and moan about rising fares, but the Shuttle was literally life. You showed up, you flew and you got on with your life. In fact, that was a famous advertising tagline for the Eastern Shuttle: Imagine life without us. Many of us couldn't.

And that's why the Shuttle is worthy of Proustian searches for memory. The Eastern Shuttle made New York-Boston or New York-Washington love affairs and marriages possible. The Shuttle made it feasible to live in one city on the weekend and work in another during the week. You could fly to one city for a breakfast meeting and be back in your own town for lunch. You could even fly up to Boston or down to Washington for an after-work drinks meeting and still be home by the end of the day. And, yes, a lot of kids of divorced parents found themselves shuttled between estranged elders on the weekend Shuttle runs.

The Eastern Shuttle was gray and boring, but also egalitarian in a way the three class-conscious cities were not. Everyone flew coach. There was no priority boarding, no elite status, no perks of any kind. Everybody paid the same price. You'd just as likely sit next to a minimum-wage courier running filings from a New York law firm to a Washington federal regulatory agency as you were to sit next to a famous politician or powerful investment banker.

Lorenzo and New York Air changed all that. Always something of a financial basket case, New York Air nevertheless was colorful (red being the color), cheaper and more comfortable thanks to seats assigned by little stickers attached to your payment receipt. And they gave you stuff: magazines and newspapers by the dozen, beverages and the astonishing Flying Nosh. In the morning, the nosh bag was filled with a bagel and cream cheese. Sandwiches at lunchtime. Cheesecake snacks on the evening flights. As much as anything, the crimson nosh bags set New York Air apart from boring, utilitarian Eastern Shuttle.

The competition between established Eastern and sassy upstart New York Air was insane. Fares fell to around $25 on weekends. Both carriers offered 2,000 frequent flyer miles for each 210-mile segment. It was the Golden Age of Air Shuttles and I can't remember a time when business travelers had it better. I was one of the Eastern-to-New York Air converts. But if I missed a New York Air flight, Eastern was still there with its blue-grey regularity. Business travel really never felt so good or functioned so effortlessly.

Of course it didn't last. Lorenzo, who already owned Continental and New York Air, bought Eastern in 1986. To get government approval for the deal, he spun New York Air's shuttle operations over to Pan Am, then folded the remnants of the bright red airline into Continental.

Honestly, it's been all downhill since. Pan Am sold its Shuttle to Delta in one last, desperate attempt to survive. It folded in December, 1991. Back in January, 1991, Eastern had folded, but not before it dumped the original Shuttle operation on a grasping Donald Trump for an absurdly inflated price. In 1989 and 1990, Trump ran the Shuttle Trump style: faux marble and gold-plated taps in the lavatories, economic chaos, lots of sliming Pan Am and, of course, his name oafishly splashed everywhere. He eventually surrendered the Shuttle to his bankers in a humiliating default. The banks brought in US Air to run it post-Trump. US Airways eventually purchased the operation outright and then it was rebranded as the American Airlines Shuttle as part of the 2015 reverse merger with US Airways.

Almost nothing of the original Shuttle concept remains. Both Delta and American run their operations as part of the general carrier. There's no such thing as show-up-and-fly anymore. Very few show up and fly the Shuttle on any terms. Most Boston-New York-Washington commuters use Acela these days. The train is more reliable, less congested, much more comfortable and about as fast when you consider the flight delays and treks to and from the airports.

The demise of one-half of the Eastern Shuttle is actually kind of meaningless. Unless, like me, your work and your love life once depended on it. Unless, like me, it was part of your lifestyle. Unless, like me, you flew it on New Year's Eves, after Friday night pick-up basketball games, for lunch meetings, or just for a date. Unless, like me, you think flying should always be as easy as the old Eastern Shuttle used to be.

Lost good times, as Proust probably says somewhere in that gigantic tome that I never actually finished reading.