After a series of intense, last-minute negotiations aimed at saving the company from going into compulsory liquidation,178-year-old holiday firm Thomas Cook has collapsed, leaving 600,000 holidaymakers stranded abroad and putting 21,000 jobs at risk. In the longer term it could also hurt popular European destination’s economies – such as Spain, Greece and Turkey – and leave fuel suppliers out of pocket, as well of hundreds of British travel agents.
Thomas Cook has for a long time been regarded the “pioneer of organized travel”, since it first sent an organized outing from Leicester to Loughborough in 1841. Today, the renowned travel company operates hotels, resorts and airlines, serving over 19 million people a year across more than 16 countries. The closure marks the end of one of Britain’s oldest companies, which started out operating local rail excursions before it survived two world wars to make its mark on the global scale.
Today however, it collapsed, the result of years of accrued financial debt – 1.7 billion pounds worth – that accumulated to send the company into liquidation. Hit by online competition, a changing travel market and various geopolitical events, the world’s oldest organized travel company could no longer compete with the global market. Virgin Group founder Richard Branson is among those who also blame Brexit and the drop of the British pound for the company’s collapse.
“The drop in the pound following the referendum has put even more pressure on the struggling business, which has been saddled with large debt for a number of years,” Branson wrote on the Thomas Cook website. “All of the travel industry costs are in dollars – for example fuel maintenance and airplane leasing. With the weaker pound, the cost of everything has skyrocketed. For Thomas Cook, this has proved terminal.”
In a statement delivered by Thomas Cook’s board, the firm concluded that “it had no choice but to take steps to enter into compulsory liquidation with immediate effect” after talks on rescuing the company failed. This was accompanied by a note from the Civil Aviation Authority, saying Thomas Cook has ceased trading and as a result its four airlines would be immediately grounded.
The talks had been taking place between senior representatives of Thomas Cook, banks and Chinese conglomerate, Fosun. The only way the travel company might have been saved would have seen £900 million fueled into the rescue effort, but this would need to have been accompanied by Thomas Cook coughing up an extra £200 million in financing. CEO of the company Peter Fankhauser said the deal had been “largely agreed” but that the additional investment required by the company presented an insurmountable challenge.
Perhaps the most immediate consequence of the firm’s closure is the 600,000 holidaymakers now stranded around the world, with 150,000 of those British citizens. For the time being, insignificant issues such as airport parking and airport taxes will be the least of problems for the Thomas Cook company, which operates an airline itself and which as a result has left thousands of travelers stranded at airports around the world. Spanish airport operator AENA says that 46 flights operated by Thomas Cook have been disrupted today alone, mostly in the Spanish Balearic and Canary archipelagos. There are also reports of holidaymakers being locked in their hotel rooms in resorts in Tunisia, essentially being held against their will until their hotel bills – rooms booked by Thomas Cook – could be paid.
The company’s closure has compelled governments and insurance companies to coordinate a wide-scale rescue operation to repatriate stranded travelers. The British government has undertaken a massive repatriation exercise known as “Operation Matterhorn”, which has seen the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) charter 40 aircraft and taken seats on other airlines to bring holidaymakers home – easyJet, British Airways and Virgin air among them. By the end of today, it is estimated that 14,000 people will have been repatriated by the CAA alone – in what has become the largest ever peacetime repatriation in the history of the UK. The CAA said it was working to support passengers scheduled to fly back to Britain with Thomas Cook from now until October 6, though transport secretary Grant Shapps cautioned that what is known as “Operation Matterhorn” would not “be entirely smooth sailing.”
Already, furious passengers are crowding British airport terminals, receiving no advice from British aviation authorities beyond “not to go to British airports” as their “flight will not be operating,” and receiving warnings that repatriation efforts would not include outbound flights from Britain.
In a statement to the public, Fankhauser, said, “This marks a deeply sad day for the company which pioneered package holidays and made travel possible for millions of people around the world. I would like to apologize to our millions of customers, and thousands of employees.”