Passengers wait for their flights inside the Ioannis Kapodistrias International Airport after Thomas Cook, the world's oldest travel firm collapsed stranding hundreds of thousands of holidaymakers around the globe and sparking the largest peacetime repatriation effort in British history, on the island of Corfu, Greece, September 23, 2019 REUTERS/Antonis Skordilis NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES.
Passengers wait for their flights inside Corfu International Airport on Monday © Reuters

At 9.30am on Monday an Atlas Air flight left New York’s JFK airport to bring back to the UK the first 300 Thomas Cook customers stranded by the company’s collapse.

Over the next two weeks, the UK’s Civil Aviation Authority will be managing one of the most complex operations in its 47-year history as it co-ordinates 51 aircraft from dozens of airlines across the world to bring 150,000 passengers of the collapsed travel operator back to the UK.

The £100m effort will involve 1,043 flights across two weeks, from 55 airports. Around 15,000 people will be flown on Monday.

The Thomas Cook operation is far more challenging than the repatriation of 85,000 Monarch customers two years ago.

The list of destinations to retrieve passengers from is longer, and includes long-haul destinations such as the Caribbean and Asia.

“It is hugely complex,” said John Strickland, an aviation analyst. “For any airline to plan its network with time on its side is a challenge, but for one to do it at a day’s notice with a global reach is even more challenging. It’s a real logistical exercise.”

By Monday morning airports in popular Thomas Cook destinations, such as Majorca and the Greek islands, were packed, as passengers learnt their morning flights had been rescheduled until the evening. Tourists not travelling on Monday were told to continue their holidays and check a CAA website for information on alternative flights that would replace Thomas Cook charters until October 6.

Thomas Cook staff who had just been made redundant continued to advise customers.

“It’s extremely sad for the employees who work so hard,” said Samantha Buckley, who was waiting to fly back from a two-week trip in Marmaris with a friend.

At Gatwick a few disappointed passengers turned up to empty check-in desks. Stefan and Zoe Sheehan were supposed to fly with Thomas Cook to the Canary Islands to scatter Zoe’s father’s ashes. The cheapest flights out they could find were more than £600 per person. “I’m gutted,” said Mr Sheehan.

It is not just the complexities of Thomas Cook’s business model. The timing of the company’s collapse will also have added to the difficulty of organising such a complex repatriation programme.

The market for spare aircraft is much tighter compared with two years ago when Monarch collapsed. The issues with Boeing’s 737 Max, which have grounded the aircraft around the world, mean airlines have fewer jets to run their own operations. At the time of Monarch’s collapse, the CAA was able to source a large proportion of the planes it needed from Qatar Airways, which was facing a blockade from its neighbours.

“The short-haul aircraft rental market is tight this time due to the 737 Max groundings. The CAA looks to be getting round this by using rented wide-body capacity, such as the Malaysian [Airbus] A380, consolidating flights to multiple UK airports on to one flight and bussing passengers to their original airport,” said Andrew Lobbenberg, aviation analyst at HSBC.

But according to one person briefed on the matter, the CAA moved to secure capacity from airlines well in advance. This is likely to have required the payment of deposits.

“The risk is that it is disproportionately more expensive than the Monarch exercise,” said one aviation commentator.

Chris Tarry, an aviation consultant, said the Thomas Cook collapse raised the question again on what should be allowed when an airline fails, such as whether its aircraft should be able to be used to bring customers back.

The collapse of Thomas Cook has also hit an estimated 140,000 holidaymakers from Germany, with another 21,000 German tourists booked on trips that were supposed to leave on Monday and Tuesday.

There were reports of German tourists arriving at Düsseldorf airport and being told their planned holiday was cancelled as a result of the Thomas Cook collapse. “We were pulled out of the queue. We are not flying. Not today and not tomorrow in any case. That’s out holiday gone,” Dieter Lenzen told German news agency dpa on Monday.

In Greece, 50,000 holidaymakers were stranded, while Spain’s industry ministry said around 114,000 passengers, mostly foreign tourists, were due to travel on Thomas Cook flights to and from Spain over the next 15 days.

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