Over 150,000 travellers and holidaymakers around the globe were left stranded abroad on Monday (23 September) when the world’s oldest travel firm Thomas Cook collapsed, requiring the British government to initiate the largest peacetime repatriation in its history.
With the help of the UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), the British government has launched a repatriation programme that will run for two weeks, from 23 September to 6 October, in order to bring Thomas Cook customers back to the UK.
Richard Moriarty, Chief Executive of the CAA said in a statement: “News of Thomas Cook’s collapse is deeply saddening for the company’s employees and customers, and we appreciate that more than 150,000 people currently abroad will be anxious about how they will now return to the UK.”
“The government has asked us to support Thomas Cook customers on what is the UK’s largest ever peacetime repatriation.”
The statement noted that all Thomas Cook bookings, including flights and holidays, have been cancelled. This has resulted in almost twice the number of customers requiring repatriation now compared to the efforts following the failure of UK’s Monarch Airlines in 2017.
According to Reuters, Prime Minister Boris Johnson revealed that his administration had rejected a request from the ailing aviation firm for a 150 million bailout (S$257.5 million). The reason was that they did not want to set up a “moral hazard”.
Said Mr Johnson on a flight to the UN General Assembly in New York: “It is a very difficult situation and obviously our thoughts are very much with the customers of Thomas Cook, the holidaymakers who may now face difficulties getting home we will do our level best to get them home.”
Thomas Cook was established in 1841, starting off by providing local rail excursions before pioneering mass tourism and package holidays after expanding to an international market. The company ran hotels, resorts and airlines in 16 countries.
Chief Executive of Thomas Cook, Mr Peter Fankhauser was quoted by Reuter’s as saying that it was a matter of profound regret that the company folded after failing to secure a rescue package via talks that proceeded through the weekend.
“I would like to apologise to our millions of customers, and thousands of employees, suppliers and partners who have supported us for many years,” Mr Fankhauser said in a statement.
“It is a matter of profound regret to me and the rest of the board that we were not successful.”
According to a different statement on the CAA’s website, a fleet of aircraft have been secured from around the world to support the repatriation efforts.
As of Monday, 64 flights brought back more than 14,7000 passengers which CAA said was over 95% of passengers who were due to return yesterday on Thomas Cook flights. Another 74 flights are scheduled for today to bring back another 16,500 passengers.
The statement noted that more than 1,000 flights are planned throughout the course of the two-week repatriation programme which still has to bring back about over 100,000 passengers to the UK.
The statement read, “With 13 days remaining and approximately 135,300 passengers still to bring back to the UK, we are working around the clock, in conjunction with the Government and the aviation industry, to deliver the flying programme after Thomas Cook ceased trading.”
Mr Moriarty said in the statement, “A repatriation of this scale and nature is unprecedented and unfortunately there will be some inconvenience and disruption for customers. We will do everything we can to minimise this as the operation continues. “
Customers who are currently overseas are advised not to go to the airport until their flight back to the UK has been confirmed on the dedicated website (thomascook.caa.co.uk). Additionally, Thomas Cook customers in the UK who are yet to travel are told not to go to the airports as all flights leaving the UK have been cancelled.
Reuters also reported that the CAA is getting in touch with hotels where Thomas Cook customers are staying to inform them that the government will be bearing the cost of the longer stays through an insurance scheme. This was prompted after several customers were held by hotel staff in Tunisia for not making additional payments.
What happened to Thomas Cook?
According to reports, Thomas Cook was brought down by a 1.7 billion (S$2.92 billion) debt and growing online competition on top of a changing travel market and geopolitical events. The heatwave in Europe last year also hit hard as customers cancelled last minute bookings.
The company had been working to secure a rescue via a recapitalisation plan worth 900 million with China’s Fosun, its biggest shareholder. Unfortunately for them, the deal collapsed in the end as the company’s banks demanded another facility of 200 million in underwritten funds.
PM Johnson said that the collapse of Thomas Cook raises the question of whether travel companies are “properly incentivised” to avoid bankruptcy, adding that the government has to look into measures which could help travel operators protect themselves from bankruptcies in the future and not rely on the taxpayers to bail them out.
Chinese company Fosun said in a separate statement that given the compulsory liquidation of Thomas Cook, the recapitalisation plan was “no longer applicable”.