London: The UK government today launched Operation Matterhorn, its biggest peacetime repatriation in British history, after the collapse of tour giant Thomas Cook that left tens of thousands of tourists stranded abroad. UK Transport Secretary Grant Shapps announced that the government and UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) has, under Operation Matterhorn, hired dozens of charter planes to fly nearly 150,000 customers home free of charge after the 178-year-old travel firm went into compulsory liquidation and all its flights stood cancelled.
The government said all travellers abroad with Thomas Cook who were booked to return to the UK over the next two weeks would be brought home as close as possible to their booked return date.
Thomas Cook’s collapse is very sad news for staff and holidaymakers. The government and UK CAA is working round the clock to help people. “Our contingency planning has helped acquire planes from across the world some from as far away as Malaysia and we have put hundreds of people in call centres and at airports,” said Shapps. “But the task is enormous, the biggest peacetime repatriation in UK history. So, there are bound to be problems and delays. Please try to be understanding with the staff who are trying to assist in what is likely to be a very difficult time for them as well,” he said.
Peter Fankhauser, Thomas Cook’s chief executive, apologised as he said the firm’s collapse was a “matter of profound regret”. The tour operator’s failure to secure a rescue deal puts 22,000 jobs at risk worldwide, including 9,000 in the UK.
Speaking to reporters on his plane heading to the UN General Assembly in New York, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson hinted at possible government action against directors of travel firms who presided over bankruptcies as he said it was time to reflect on whether the directors of these companies are properly incentivised to sort such matters out.
UK Business Secretary Andrea Leadsom said she would write to the UK’s Insolvency Service to ask them to prioritise and fast-track their investigation into the circumstances surrounding Thomas Cook going into liquidation. The investigation will also consider the conduct of the directors. “This will be a hugely worrying time for employees of Thomas Cook, as well as their customers. The government will do all it can to support them,” she said.
Meanwhile, the UK CAA said it aims to fly people as close as possible to their booked return date so travellers are being strongly advised not to cut short their holiday or go to the airport without checking the official website for information about their return journey.
The UK CAA is also contacting hotels accommodating Thomas Cook customers, who have booked as part of a package, to tell them that the cost of their accommodation will also be covered by the government, through the Air Travel Trust Fund/ATOL cover. It said that all Thomas Cook customers, wherever they are around the world, will be brought back to the UK on special free flights or booked onto another scheduled airline at no extra cost. A dedicated website will provide all the information customers need to access these flights. A small number of passengers may need to book their own flight home and reclaim the costs.
For flights back to the UK, it does not matter what nationality the traveller is, the UK CAA clarified, adding that hundreds of staff from many government departments and agencies, including the UK CAA, the Department for Transport (DfT), and the UK Foreign Office (FCO), will be deployed in call centres and at airports to help people.
The operation, which has been code-named Operation Matterhorn, is modelled on the successful repatriation of passengers after the collapse of Monarch Airways in 2017. The final cost of Matterhorn to taxpayers was about GBP 50 million. The repatriation effort with Thomas Cook is about twice the size, the UK government said.
Richard Moriarty, chief executive of the UK CAA, said that the nature and scale of Operation Matterhorn meant that, unfortunately, some disruption would be inevitable. “We ask customers to bear with us as we work around the clock to bring them home,” he said.
Thomas Cook was founded in 1841 by a Derbyshire-based cabinet-maker named Thomas Cook and the first holiday took customers 12 miles by train from Leicester to a meeting in Loughborough. In 1928 the family sold up to the Belgian owners of the Orient Express, but the World War II saw it become part of the nationalised British Railways and returned to private ownership in 1972 and has seen a series of mergers and takeovers since.
Thomas Cook (India) Group had already issued a statement last week stressing that it was not affected by the UK-headquartered company, being an entirely different entity since August 2012 when it was acquired by Canada’s Fairfax Financial Holdings (Fairfax).
The operation draws its name from Matterhorn, a mountain of the Alps, straddling the main watershed and border between Switzerland and Italy.