Whatever Happened to… Eastern Airlines and the World Hockey Association?

For some reason I’ve always found it more interesting to see why things like businesses fail than to read about success stories.  It’s not even that I take any glee in their failure, so maybe it’s an underdog thing?  Anyway, in the first entry of yet another series I’ll likely abandon at some point, we will take a brief look at some of the more prominent businesses/entities to disappear from existence.  Up first is one that was the premiere example of its industry at one point, and one that was probably doomed from the start.

Eastern Airlines plane with logo (1974)

Who: Eastern Airlines

When: 1926 – 1991

What: Begun as a mail carrier for the U.S. Postal Service in the 1920s, Eastern grew to become a dominant force in commercial aviation by the 1950s.  Its first CEO was famed World War I Flying Ace Eddie Rickenbacker, who headed the company until he was ousted in 1959.  By the 1970s the company was counted as one of the “Big Four” U.S. airlines along with United, American, and Trans-World (TWA).  Eastern was the first of this group to add the legendary Boeing 727 to its fleet (in 1964).

What happened: Eastern struggled mightily after the airline industry was deregulated in 1978, and in 1986 was purchased by corporate raider Frank Lorenzo’s Texas Air Corporation (which took over Continental in 1982).  Texas Air sold off pieces of Eastern’s holdings, one by one, as the company continued to hemorrhage money.  A mechanics’ strike in 1989 was more than the fragile airline could withstand, and Eastern filed for bankruptcy in March of that year.  At the time it was the largest bankruptcy filing ever for an airline.  The company ceased operations in 1991, one day after the start of the Persian Gulf War.

World Hockey Association (WHA) logo

Who: World Hockey Association

When: 1972 – 1979

What: Competing sports leagues were apparently all the rage in the ’60s and ’70s.  The NFL had the American Football League and World Football League to contend with, while the NBA dealt with the American Basketball Association.  The NHL’s turn came in 1972 with the formation of the World Hockey Association.  Not coincidentally, the WHA was started by Dennis Murphy and Gary Davidson, the founder and first president of the ABA, respectively.

The new league was never a serious threat to the established NHL, but did manage to sign some of their high-profile players, most notably Bobby Hull.  The WHA also embraced the practice of recruiting European players, which is now commonplace in the NHL. Several hockey legends got their pro start in the WHA — Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, and Mike Gartner to name a few.

What happened: Financial instability plagued the 12-team league from day one.  Franchises folded or relocated at an alarming rate, and by the end of the WHA’s final season only six remained.  Four of the survivors — the Edmonton Oilers, Quebec Nordiques, Winnipeg Jets, and New England Whalers (soon to be renamed as the Hartford Whalers) – were brought into the NHL, while the other two (the Cincinnati Stingers and Birmingham Bulls) attempted to carry on in the Central Hockey League but quickly failed.

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