How to Get 150,000 Stranded People Home in Two Weeks

The UK has a fund to bring home passengers left hanging after the collapse of travel agency Thomas Cook. In the US, travelers wouldn’t be so lucky.

When the British travel agency and tour company Thomas Cook went bankrupt and folded on Monday, it was more than the end of the world’s oldest travel company. Thomas Cook opened in 1841, but when it closed 600,000 people still had trips booked with the firm—which bundled packages of flights, hotels, and so on. About 150,000 of them were actually on those trips—150,000 people who woke up Monday morning to find that they didn’t have a ride home. But don’t panic! Stiffen the upper lip. Evacuating vast numbers of people from Europe to England is kind of their thing, after all. The UK has a plan, and the plan has a codename: Operation Matterhorn.

Keep calm and carry tourists: The UK’s Civil Aviation Authority is spinning up a massive logistical engine with a minimum of fuss. Transport secretary Grant Shapps called it “the biggest peacetime repatriation in UK history.” And, honestly, it sounds kind of remarkable. (Repatriating stolen artifacts from Britain back to Egypt or Greece? Nah. Those Greeks have lost their marbles. But repatriating stranded people from Egypt or Greece back to Britain? Let’s do this thing.)

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Thomas Cook had been in trouble for a long time—a crushing debt and Europe-wide uncertainty over post-Brexit travel forced the company to get £900 million ($1.125 billion) in bailout funds from a big Chinese shareholder in August. It sought £200 million more from the government last weekend … and didn’t get it. Hence, no more Thomas Cook, which at the time of its demise employed 21,000 people, and at its peak, provided full-service tour packages to 19 million. So its disappearance is a significant thump to the global tourism economy.

Thomas Cook is the largest British travel provider to go pfft, but it’s not the only one, nor the first. Which is part of the reason the UK in the early 1970s created something called Air Travel Organiser’s License, or ATOL, alongside the privatized Civil Aviation Authority. “It’s a holiday protection scheme. For every holiday booked, £2.50 goes into a fund that accumulates and is used to deal with situations like this,” says Richard Taylor, a spokesperson for the CAA. “Over several years, that builds up to quite a large amount of money.”

How much, exactly? As of last weekend, about £170 million, just sitting there, waiting to help people. Which is good, because the last time this happened, when Monarch Airlines went bust in 2017, it cost the CAA £60 million to repatriate 85,000 people, about half the number they’re on the hook for now. (That’s according to the Financial Times, which estimates that the total costs of repatriating and reimbursing the 600,000 people with Thomas Cook tickets in their pockets could top £600 million. A problem for another day.)

OK, so, money in hand, how does the CAA get humans onto airplanes to replace Thomas Cook’s 34 grounded aircraft? “It’s not as complicated as you might think,” Taylor says. “We’ve got the full flight program of the original Thomas Cook flights, and we are simply wet leasing aircraft from other airlines to replace those flights.” Wet leasing is renting planes with crews, a common practice in air travel. “Luckily, there’s quite a lot of spare aircraft around at the moment,” Taylor says.

CAA plans to rent 40 to 45 planes, everything from shorter-haul, narrow-body Airbus 320s from providers like EasyJet to wide-body aircraft from British Airways and Virgin for longer overseas trips from, like, North America. They’re even leasing one double-decker A380 from Malaysia Airlines.

Those planes will swap in for the slots the Thomas Cook flights would have flown. Different flight numbers, probably, but for all intents and purposes—to regional air traffic control and airport authorities, at least—they’re the same. The CAA set up a website for travelers to check their new flights, and it’ll shock you to hear that it seems to be functioning despite begging to be DDOSed. CAA is estimating it will end up running about 1,000 flights total, but “I’m not sure we know the exact number,” Taylor adds. He figures it’ll be something like 50 flights a day, maybe more.

Even people who only booked flights rather than full travel packages with Thomas Cook are going to be covered, though technically ATOL doesn’t apply to them. “Otherwise they’d be just stuck with no way to get back,” according to Taylor, as though it’s obvious that a quasi-governmental agency would function in a helpful and logical way.

That wouldn’t happen in the US. A spokesperson for the Federal Aviation Administration, domestic equivalent of the CAA, says the agency has neither regulatory authority over failed airlines nor access to anything similar to the ATOL fund. The US State Department has mechanisms for evacuating US citizens caught in global crises, but apparently not for business upheavals. “In the past, airlines have cooperated to transport stranded passengers, offering them available seats at reasonable fares,” says Martin Dresner, a professor at the University of Maryland who studies air transport and logistics. “But I believe that this has been voluntary.”

Two weeks after it started, Operation Matterhorn will stop. A government investigation of the Thomas Cook collapse looks likely to follow, and more reimbursements and work with creditors will come after that. But everyone will be home. “Things could always go wrong,” Taylor says. “But by and large, it should all run quite smoothly.” Somehow flying on a UK carrier in a global crisis seems more pleasant than flying a US airline under the status quo.

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