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Article from BTNews 23 SEPTEMBER 2019

Thomas Cook disintegrates

Talks to rescue the Thomas Cook travel empire finally collapsed early this morning as the company lost its battle to stay afloat in the face of severe financial pressures. This is a revised (5pm) and more detailed version of a story originally published in the early hours of today.

The biggest peacetime repatriation in history has been put into action by the government and CAA after talks to rescue the Thomas Cook travel empire finally disintegrated, with dozens of aircraft chartered to fly stranded customers home for free.

With all flights cancelled, the Civil Aviation Authority has established a 24hr helpline - 0300 303 2800 from the UK and Ireland and +44 1753 330 330 from overseas.

The firm, established in 1841, revealed in May it had debts of £1.25bn and said political uncertainty surrounding Britain's departure from the European Union had led to softer demand for summer holidays, with higher fuel and hotel costs also affecting business. Many will say that it was nothing to do with Brexit but a change in holiday booking habits.

Royal Bank of Scotland, one of Thomas Cook's lenders, had said it "has provided considerable support" over many years and "continues to work with all parties in order to try and find a resolution to the funding and liquidity shortfall". All to no avail.  The operator confirmed on Friday it was seeking £200m in extra funding and was in talks with stakeholders.

The failure to raise the required capital raises questions about the jobs of the 22,000 staff Thomas Cook employed around the world, including 9,000 in Britain.

“All customers currently abroad with Thomas Cook who are booked to return to the UK over the next two weeks will be brought home as close as possible to their booked return date,” the government said.

Arrangements for the repatriation, which will run until Sunday 6 October, began as soon as news of the collapse emerged. Details of each flight are being posted on a special website (see below) as soon as they become available.

Transport secretary Grant Shapps said: “The government and the UK CAA aim to fly people as close as possible to their booked return date – so customers are being strongly advised not to cut short their holidays or go to the airport without checking the website for information on their return journeys.”

The CAA was also contacting hotels accommodating Thomas Cook customers who had booked as part of a package to tell them the cost of their accommodation would also be covered by the government through the Air Travel Trust Fund/ATOL cover. All Thomas Cook customers wherever they are around the world are being brought back on special free flights or booked on to another scheduled airline at no extra cost.

The government said a small number of passengers might need to book their own flights home and reclaim the costs. But it added: “For flights back to the UK, it doesn’t matter whether customers are ATOL protected or not, or what their nationality is. Everyone on a Thomas Cook holiday with a return flight to the UK … will be brought home.”

Shapps noted under normal circumstances, passengers not ATOL protected would be asked to find, and pay for, their own way home: “However, given the extent of the disruption, the government is stepping in to assist.”

Hundreds of staff from many government departments and agencies, including the CAA, Department for Transport (DfT) and the Foreign Office (FCO) were being deployed in call centres and at airports to help people.

CAA chief executive Richard Moriarty said: “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.

“We have launched, at very short notice, what is effectively one of the UK’s largest airlines, involving a fleet of aircraft secured from around the world. The nature and scale of the operation means that unfortunately some disruption will be inevitable. We ask customers to bear with us as we work around the clock to bring them home.”

Tim Alderslade, chief executive of Airlines UK, which represents UK-registered carriers and counted Thomas Cook as a member, said: “Today is an incredibly sad day for the UK airline and travel industry. Thomas Cook has been one of our most recognisable brands for over 100 years and has served and represented our sector with distinction.

“The CAA and Department for Transport will ensure they are brought home in as speedy and professional way as possible. Other Airlines UK members will also be heavily assisting with the repatriation effort, and we thank them for their efforts over the coming days overseeing what will be an incredibly complex operation.”

“Our thoughts go out to the thousands of Thomas Cook staff who through no fault of their own face an uncertain future, and the hundreds of thousands of passengers who are currently abroad or were looking forward to taking a holiday with the company."

From the ABTA perspective, Thomas Cook Group Plc operated several businesses that sold holidays and other travel arrangements, including five companies that are members of the association. However the group airline business is not a member. 

ABTA CEO Mark Tanzer said: “Along with many others in the industry, I am extremely saddened by the news about the demise of Thomas Cook, one of the UK’s most iconic travel brands.

“For ABTA members, customers and industry colleagues, this will be an extremely worrying time. ABTA has developed detailed advice for our members about what to do next, as well as for customers. ABTA staff will be doing all we can to manage inquiries as swiftly as possible.”

The pilots’ union BALPA struck a more controversial note. It said: “The hopes of all Thomas Cook employees that their airline could survive have been brutally quashed this morning as they wake up to find they have no job.

“While detailed plans to repatriate passengers have been carefully put together and ministers have and will continue to claim the credit for that, the staff have been stabbed in the back without a second’s thought.

“Despite continuing to keep Thomas Cook going in recent weeks with dignity and integrity while their own futures were being secretly decided, we don’t even know if staff will get a pay cheque this month. It is despicable. Thomas Cook pilots and all staff deserve better than this.

“For pilots, BALPA will be supporting our members through the legal complexities of what Thomas Cook liquidation means for them and doing everything we can to help them find alternative jobs in other airlines.”


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OUR READERS' FINEST WORDS (All times and dates are GMT)

All comments are filtered to exclude any excesses but the Editor does not have to agree with what is being said. 100 words maximum

Michael Preston, Weybridge/Cape Town

I asked the same question and was told that the AOC is owned by the company and as soon as the company ceases trading, the AOC becomes invalid, rendering the airline unable to fly. I would have thought that there could have been some sort of a work-around but clearly not.

Graham Greenwood, REDDITCH

Operating as in the 20th century was a big problem, but Brexit uncertainty and the effects on currency fluctuations sealed the casket on Thomas Cook forever! I would like to know why the CAA/government has to charter in aircraft from around the planet, why not temporarily take over the Thomas Cook Airline business, with the liquidator, until the mess of repatriation of customers is sorted?