Eastern Airlines' financial woes in the era of airline deregulation have been well documented in the 1980s and never more so since it was taken over in 1986 by currently beleaguered Texas Air.
But on Saturday, Eastern's 30,000 employees nationally and 500 in Utah will put those problems on the shelf for a day and celebrate the airline's 60th birthday.The theme will be "Sixty Years of Pride" as employees unfurl a large banner on the west side of Eastern's reservations center at 2445 West Jetway Ave., just south of Salt Lake City International Airport.
"We are proud of the company and its heritage," said Eastern spokesman Bob Berquist, Eastern's regional manager of reservations and telephone sales.
"We are proud of our contribution to life in Utah (and) we look forward to a bright, profitable future, and Utah-based careers."
The rally-birthday party will get under way at 12:30 p.m. with activities, contests and prizes. The banner will be unfurled at 1 p.m. as employees, their families, dignitaries and guests gather for the celebration.
"For us, this is a turning point," said Berquist. "We have faced challenges before, and will face them again, but we have confidence Eastern will overcome these obstacles, and we look forward to a new vision of Eastern as the `Airline of the '90s."
Berquist said most of Eastern's 500 employees are sales agents in the reservations center. The center cover's the airline's local dial telephone network in Western cities and WATS service to all the West, Southwest and Midwest. Agents here accept more than 25,000 calls daily.
The Salt Lake center is also the western hub of Texas Air's computer and communications network and is a switching center for computer transactions of travel agencies leasing the company's SystemOne services.
Eastern's economic impact on the Salt Lake area is substantial, notes Berquist. "In a state where 99 percent of its private employers employ fewer than 250 workers each, Eastern Airlines maintains a union-free work force of 500."
That places Eastern in the top one percent of employers in the state, according to Utah Department of Employment Security figures.
Eastern's work force generates more than $6 million in salary income annually and "greater than average" tax revenues for both state and local governments, said Berquist. Additional revenue is generated through Eastern's payment of utilities, landing fees, and payments made to the Salt Lake Airport Authority.
Eastern employees have also been good community citizens, said Berquist, supporting the University of Utah Medical Center, Primary Children's Hospital, United Way, March of Dimes, Salt Lake City Arts Festival, Utah Arts Council, Utah Opera, Toys for Tots, St. Vincent de Paul Food Bank, Red Cross and others.
Acknowledging the airline's financial problems, Berquist said the restructuring of Eastern's costs to meet "marketplace realities" is continuing.
"Forces allied against the long-term best interest of Eastern's 500 employees in Utah, and 30,000 across America, threaten our job security and we in Utah regret our company has become a political football," said Berquist.
"Recent outside agitation has encouraged government investigations of Eastern which are rapidly showing our true picture for what it is: a company and its employees dedicated to providing the safest transportation possible with good service and low prices."
But while getting its financial house in order is important, Berquist emphasized that safety remains Eastern's top priority.
"In the decade of deregulation, Eastern has maintained an excellent, yet seldom publicized safety record," said Berquist. "During this period, Eastern has operated more than 5.1 million flights, transporting nearly 400 million passengers, without a single domestic fatality." (Eastern sustained a fatal accident in 1985 in La Paz, Bolivia, at an unsupervised airport.)
Berquist said Eastern's annual safety and maintenance budget of $632 million is the highest per plane budget in the industry.