Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

A Wayne-based airline is rescuing Americans stranded by coronavirus

The global coronavirus pandemic has thrust tiny Eastern Airlines into the aviation headlines.

Steve Harfst, chief executive and president of Eastern Airlines, stands outside of the company's office in Wayne.  trying to return home during the novel coronavirus pandemic.
Steve Harfst, chief executive and president of Eastern Airlines, stands outside of the company's office in Wayne. trying to return home during the novel coronavirus pandemic.Read moreKRISTON JAE BETHEL / For the Inquirer

Before he could get to Dubuque, Brandon Kacere had to get to Guayaquil.

Two weeks ago the 40-year-old Iowa financial adviser and his wife were marooned by the coronavirus outbreak inside a rented condo in an Ecuadoran resort town. The airport was two hours away in Guayaquil, which the virus had locked down. Blockades stretched across the city’s perimeter. There was a curfew in effect and anyone trying to enter without a government-issued pass risked arrest and a $350 fine.

And even if the vacationing couple managed to penetrate that urban shield, they then had to find a way back to Iowa. There were no scheduled flights from Ecuador’s largest city to the United States for at least another month.

That’s when the U.S. Embassy suggested Kacere check with Eastern Airlines, a little-known, Wayne-based company with an old name and old jets that over the last few weeks has rescued thousands of stranded Americans in Central and South America.

“Eastern saved us,” said Kacere, who got back to Iowa on March 23.

This worldwide pandemic has thrust tiny Eastern into the aviation headlines. The firm was founded in 2010 in North Carolina, but filed for bankruptcy seven years later. After Chapter 11 restructuring, the airline emerged from bankruptcy in 2018, and last June the 148-employee airline moved its headquarters to offices on Swedesford Road in Wayne.

Until the pandemic exploded in early March, Eastern — not affiliated with the onetime giant airline that dissolved in 1991 — was operating a single route, two flights weekly between JFK in New York and Guayaquil. But the company was close to adding a few more to secondary markets in Central and South America.

“We thought there was a pretty big opportunity to serve niche international markets that are underserved or have no service to the U.S.,” said Steve Harfst, Eastern’s president and CEO. “That was our business plan up until about two weeks ago. Then the world turned upside down.”

» FAQ: Your coronavirus questions, answered

As the COVID-19 pandemic spread and one legacy airline after another canceled flights, Eastern saw an opportunity.

“We did a series of repatriation charters in early March, carrying a whole bunch of students from Grenada to Miami,” said Harfst. “Then the phone really started ringing and we started talking to a couple embassies. They said, `We’ve got all these American citizens who need to get home and all the airlines have pulled out.’ So, coordinating with the embassies and the State Department’s repatriation task force, we started implementing direct-sale charters to these countries.”

As of Friday, the little airline with eight Boeing 767s had made 41 of those repatriation flights and brought 8,100 Americans home from places like Ecuador, Grenada, Guyana, Argentina, Guatemala, Panama, Paraguay, and elsewhere. By Tuesday, it will have flown three more rescue misssions.

» READ MORE: Philly-area Peace Corps volunteers are forced to evacuate due to coronavirus: ‘I wasn’t ready to leave’

It hasn’t been effortless. For a small company in the midst of a huge crisis, the logistical challenges were enormous. Permissions had to be sought from nations and airports. Ticketing, check-in, baggage, and mechanical services had to be established and staffed within days.

“Some of these places required cash and asked us if we could do Venmo [the digital-wallet service],” said Harfst. “But somehow we haven’t had many issues.”

Eastern’s unexpected business bump came without any advertising. Passengers were directed to their website by the State Department. Some flights have carried as few as 80 passengers, others as many as 240. Ticket prices vary, but, Harfst said, they tend to be in “the $1,000 range.”

“We’re just trying to cover our costs and get these people home,” he said.

» READ MORE: As borders close around the world, frantic ordeals to get home to Philadelphia

Kacere’s adventure was probably typical.

His wife, Paola, is Ecuadoran. She was in Guayaquil visiting relatives when he arrived on March 10 for a two-week vacation that included a nephew’s high school graduation.

“Two days later, everything shut down,” Kacere, 40, said. “It was scary. They said no going out, no gatherings. When they canceled my nephew’s graduation, we drove to an Airbnb on the coast, in Salinas. It got worse. They were already checking people’s temperatures and everyone was required to wear gloves and masks to go into grocery stores.”

By March 15, authorities ordered Ecuadorans to stay inside. Those who’d been issued passes could go out, but only every other day, based on their license-plate numbers. All incoming flights stopped. Spirit Airlines contacted Kacere to tell him that his, on March 24, was canceled. There wouldn’t be another until April 21.

“We were like, `Well, we can’t be here that long. I don’t have that much vacation or time off at work.’”

Meanwhile, the disease was spreading fast. There were 10 deaths within a few days. His angst growing, Kacere contacted the U.S. Embassy in Guayaquil. No one was getting in or out of the city without a pass, officials told him, and they couldn’t get him one. They did, however, provide a letter of passage.

“They told me no guarantees but maybe it would help,” Kacere said.

He bought tickets for an Eastern flight on March 23. Those and the letter finally got the Kaceres into Guayaquil. They stayed with relatives for two days, found a brother-in-law whose license plate allowed him to drive that day, and on Monday reached the airport.

» READ MORE: State Department says 13,500 Americans stranded abroad have asked for help

“You had to have a ticket to get inside,” Kacere said. “There was only one other airline going out and everybody was a little nervous. But once we got on the plane, things went smoothly. It was mostly Americans, a lot of seniors, and it was full. We were in the last row.

“The mood was good. Everybody was happy to be able to get home. The Eastern people did a great job keeping us calm. They were all wearing masks and gloves, so we were surprised when we got to Miami and saw that none of those protocols had been instituted there.”

Harfst said he’s been busier than ever these last few weeks, but nothing like his airline’s crews.

“Our pilots, flight attendants, and line mechanics haven’t been home,” Harfst said. “They’re out there doing some pretty amazing stuff.”

Eastern has about 100 of those employees. The rest of its workforce, thanks to Harft’s insistence, is in Wayne.

“I came to Philly in 2008 as president and CEO of USA 3000 Airlines, which was based in Newtown Square,” said Harfst. “When Eastern offered me the job, I said I’d take it if they moved up here.”

Now that the airline has flown in and out of these secondary markets and established at least temporary infrastructures there, Harfst said, establishing a normal presence in normal times should be easier.

“We’ve been like ducks,” he said. “Things look smooth on the surface. But there’s a lot of underwater logistics going on. But it’s all good. The planes have been arriving and we’ve been getting people home.”

Correction: This story has been changed to reflect that Guayaquil is Ecuador’s largest city.