No Shirt, No Service


Vindictive glee was my immediate reaction to the news that Tower Air, which filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in February, had been forced to suspend its scheduled flights. I suspect I was not alone.

According to The New York Post, Tower had "a reputation for poor customer service," including "late flights," "smelly lavatories," and "in-flight meals that consisted of a sandwich and an apple." Tower treated its passengers like cattle, crowding them into long, narrow departure pens where most had to stand or sit on the floor until they were permitted to board a shabby old 747, which often would leave hours after the announced time.

In true Tower style, the airline abruptly canceled all of its scheduled flights early this month, leaving thousands of passengers with useless tickets and hundreds stranded at JFK. Travelers who thought they were flying to Tel Aviv on the night of May 1 arrived at the airport to find the terminal empty, the doors chained and padlocked.

"I think it could have been done in a more consumer-friendly manner," New York City Consumer Affairs Commissioner Jane Hoffman told Newsday. She suggested "notifying customers ahead of time that there potentially could be a problem–that your flight might not take off."

Clearly, Hoffman has never flown on Tower. If she had, she would know that such consideration is not part of the airline's culture. She would also know that, in the interest of full disclosure, a warning like the one she suggested could have been printed in bold letters on every ticket Tower ever sold.

I speak, of course, from bitter personal experience. Every time I've traveled with Tower, I've sworn I would never do it again.

The reason I kept breaking that promise, the reason anyone in his right mind would choose to fly on Tower more than once, is simple: It was cheap.

When you work for a nonprofit organization, price is important, whether you're flying for business or for pleasure. Tower offered round-trip fares of less than $400 from New York to Los Angeles and less than $900 from New York to Tel Aviv when its closest competitors were charging hundreds more.

Despite the savings, a Tower flight was never the sort of experience that left you feeling satisfied. You paid in discomfort and annoyance what you didn't pay in dollars–but not quite as much, which was how the airline managed to attract repeat customers like me.

In recent months, Tower's discounts have reflected its growing desperation. The Jerusalem Post reports "a recent price of $479 round trip [from Tel Aviv] to New York" and a deal offering "an unlimited number of return flights to New York for a month and a half for $1,499."

Even with its low standard of service, Tower apparently could not keep offering the bargains that stopped disgruntled passengers from going elsewhere. Although its charter flights will continue, its scheduled service seems to be a thing of the past.

Still, other businesses thrive with a no-frills strategy that may leave customers grumbling but keeps them coming back. Take T.J. Maxx, where I recently bought eight summer shirts and a pair of shorts for $150. By comparison, a couple of months ago I blew about a third as much on single shirt of similar quality at Bloomingdale's.

The two shopping experiences were starkly different. At Bloomingdale's, which seemed to have a staff-to-customer ratio of about 3 to 1, I was assisted every step of the way by eager, friendly salespeople. At T.J. Maxx, I was completely ignored. I had to wait 15 minutes for someone to unlock the door to the fitting rooms, and I stood in a long line at the checkout counter.

I liked the ambience and the personal attention at Bloomingdale's. On the other hand, the inconvenience of shopping at T.J. Maxx helped validate the bargain: If I was going to this much trouble, I must be getting a really good deal.

A similar logic should apply to Tower, but somehow I cannot muster for the airline even the sort of grudging affection I feel toward T.J. Maxx–perhaps because dealing with Tower never left me with anything as tangible as a shirt.

That may have been Tower's big mistake. Combining two popular novelty clothing themes, it could have given away souvenirs proclaiming, "I Survived Tower Air, and All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt."