Tower goes kaput, strands passengers


NEW YORK, May 3 (JTA) — When the Israeli Consulate here sent a team of employees to Kennedy Airport this week, offering funds for Israelis in distress, it was not responding to a natural disaster or act of terrorism.

Instead, the consulate — along with Jewish organizations like Chabad and Hatzalah — was helping those victimized by Tower Air’s abrupt cancellation of flights.

The discount airline, which is headquartered at the airport and filed for bankruptcy in February, canceled all passenger flights at 6:30 p.m. on May 1.

It is unclear why the cancellations were made so abruptly and without warning to passengers, with one flight en route from Los Angeles to Tel Aviv even landing for a stopover in New York and never resuming.

In New York alone, 400 passengers — 95 percent of them Israeli, according to consulate officials — were stranded on Monday night, and others continue to be stranded around the world.

On Wednesday, no one was answering the telephone at the airline’s corporate office. A recorded message on Tower’s flight information phone line said, “As of Monday, May 1, we have ceased all flight operations.”

It advised callers to contact their travel agent or credit card company to obtain a refund.

A Tower Air spokeswoman was quoted by the Associated Press as saying that the majority of the company’s employees have been let go, but that the company is still in business.

Asked whether flights would ever be resumed, the spokeswoman said, “I can’t predict the future.”

Some say it is fitting that an airline so notorious for its poor customer service that it provoked an entire Web site — — devoted to lampooning it, would say what appears to be its final farewell by leaving passengers stranded around the world.

Tower was created in 1983, with the New York-Tel Aviv route its most traveled. It also flew to Athens, Los Angeles, Miami, Paris, San Francisco and San Juan.

According to the Israeli daily Ha’aretz, Israeli travel agents were not notified about the cancellations. When they called the Tower’s Tel Aviv office, they were told that passengers were to be left to their own devices.

Consulate officials in New York said they were helping passengers arrange other flights — and that El Al, Israel’s national carrier, has increased its flights between Israel and the United States and is offering $400 tickets for people holding Tower tickets.

The consulate provided stranded Israelis at JFK with $100 for food and hotel, and paid for phone calls home, according to Shmuel Sisso, the consul general in New York, who called the situation “outrageous.”

Other organizations helped provide food and arrange housing.

Noach Dear, a New York City Council member who represents a predominantly Jewish constituency in Brooklyn and chairs the council’s transportation committee, also called Tower’s behavior an “outrage” and called on the federal government Wednesday to step in on behalf of stranded ticket- holders and help them recover the lost airfare.

It is unclear whether Tower ticket holders, particularly those who paid by cash or check and thus do not have credit card insurance, will be able to receive refunds.

Jeff Hoschander, a spokesman for Dear, said the council member was particularly concerned about this matter because people who used Tower were drawn to its discount prices and “aren’t the kind of people who have money to scrape together for new flights.”

According to David Stempler, president of the Washington-based Air Travelers Association, ticket holders who have not paid by credit card will likely be added to the bankrupt company’s list of creditors, but may have difficulty ever collecting the money.

Stempler said he did not know why Tower ended services so abruptly, but speculated that it simply ran out of money.

When airlines file for bankruptcy, said Stempler, “the fuelers, caterers and people providing essential services like parts and repairs want money up front, and if the company runs out of cash, they just stop.”

When it filed for bankruptcy in February, Tower announced that it would cut 19 percent of its workforce in order to boost profits.

Its CEO, primary shareholder and co-founder, Morris Nachtomi, worked for Israel’s national airline, El Al, for 30 years, according to Tower Air’s Web site.

Recommended from JTA