An all-Boeing 747 airline, based at New York’s John F Kennedy airport, operating to premium destinations such as Tel Aviv, Rome, and Frankfurt… sounds like a recipe for success. But just 17 years after beginning operations, Tower Air was no more. Let’s take a look at what happened with this airline and what became of its 30 Boeing 747s.
The colorful story of Tower Air
Tower Air was founded in 1982 by ex-El Al worker Morris K. Nachtomi, an Israeli-born migrant to the US. He’d already launched and shut down a passenger airline in the US – Metro International Airways – on behalf of Flying Tiger Line but wanted to strike out on his own. Having purchased the Tower brand from a travel company, he got hold of a Boeing 747-100, a 12-year-old ex-Braniff aircraft, and the airline began flying in 1983.
The airline focused on charter flights to Israel, operating a New York – Brussels – Tel Aviv routing. Over the coming years, it added flights to destinations as far-flung as Frankfurt, Athens, Delhi, Sao Paulo, and many more. It won lucrative contracts with the US DOD to transport armed forces to overseas locations and flew charters for pilgrims to Mecca.
But all was not well at Tower Air. Despite seeming to flourish, the airline began to lose money hand over fist in the 90s. It had gained a reputation for always being late, for running the oldest and most decrepit fleet on the planet, and for passengers suffering delays of many hours, or even days, due to poor maintenance of its planes.
A brief search of popular aviation forums reveals a wealth of interesting stories about this bizarre airline. While taxiing back one day at LAX, a disgruntled passenger apparently climbed a set of air stairs and threw a shoe at the cockpit window. Others claim the check-in agents were deliberately slow so as to brand passengers ‘no-show’ when they took too long to get through the process. Seats held together with duct tape, burned out reading lights… we could go on…
It’s only saving grace was that it was dirt cheap. So cheap, in fact, that before its bankruptcy, even a full flight would run at a loss. The airline began cannibalizing its own engines at one point to keep its planes flying, but by 2000, 11 out of its 19 aircraft were grounded. Tower Air wound up for good later that year, but what happened to its fleet?
Where did Tower Air’s 747s go?
Across its brief history, Tower operated a total of 30 747s. The first, as mentioned, arrived with the launch of the airline in 1983. It was 1987 before any more arrived, with two -100s arriving, followed by one more the year after. A steady stream of -100s and -200s flowed into the airline from then until 1999.
Many of these aircraft were old, having flown from companies like Braniff, Qantas, Pan Am, and even BOAC before arriving at Tower. Two of TAP Portugal’s 747s ended up with Tower, as did a number of TWAs. As a result, 10 aircraft were scrapped after ending service with Tower Air due to their age.
Several went on to become cargo conversions, operating for airlines such as Evergreen, Atlas, and Polar Air Cargo. One was written off after a runway excursion in snowy conditions. Flight 41 veered off the runway at JFK in a snowstorm in December 1995. Minor injuries were reported to both passenger and cabin crew, but everyone escaped with their lives.
By now, unsurprisingly, all Tower Air’s 747s have been scrapped. One ex-Tower Air 747 can still be visited today, although it won’t be flying anywhere. N514DC, an ex-Singapore Airlines 747-200 (which also went through the hands of Pan Am, Cathay, Transjet, and Northeast), is now a hotel known as Jumbo Stay. Seeing out its days at Arlanda Airport in Stockholm, Sweden, the aircraft offers dorms, family rooms, and even a suite in the cockpit!
Do you remember Tower Air? Let us know about your memories in the comments.