Thomas Cook has collapsed, prompting the UK’s biggest ever peacetime repatriation to bring 150,000 stranded customers home.
The programme is expected to last until Sunday 6 October and will rescue almost twice the number brought home after Monarch Airlines failed in 2017.
Around one million customers who had travel booked in the coming months have been told not to go to the airport, as all bookings, including flights and holidays, have been cancelled.
It had a total of 600,000 global customers in-resort at the time of its collapse.
Thomas Cook planes that were operating overnight have been grounded as they land at their destinations while 21,000 staff, including 9,000 people in the UK, are set to lose their jobs.
The prospect of finding new work in the sector is bleak as it battles stiff competition and consumer caution over Brexit.
Peter Fankhauser, Thomas Cook’s chief executive, said the tour operator’s demise was a “matter of profound regret”, apologising to those affected.
He said executives had “worked extensively” in an effort to rescue the 178-year-old travel company, adding: “Although a deal had been largely agreed, an additional facility requested in the last few days of negotiations presented a challenge that ultimately proved insurmountable.
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“It is a matter of profound regret to me and the rest of the board that we were not successful.
“I would like to apologise to our millions of customers, and thousands of employees, suppliers and partners who have supported us for many years.”
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The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) has mobilised at least 40 aircraft from airlines including British Airways and easyJet to bring 150,000 Thomas Cook customers home to the UK.
Richard Moriarty, chief executive of the UK Civil Aviation Authority, said news of Thomas Cook’s failure was “deeply saddening”.
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More than 175 years after it was founded, the high street staple has collapsed.
He added: “The government has asked us to support Thomas Cook customers on what is the UK’s largest ever peacetime repatriation.
“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.”
The CAA’s policy director Tim Johnson told Sky News: “We expect to run around 1000 flights from the 55 destinations that Thomas Cook served.
“This is a huge effort, we’re working very closely with the government and Foreign Office in particular…But we’re particularly appreciative and grateful for the support of a number of Thomas Cook employees who have clearly received this very sad news but they’re going to be working with us over the coming few weeks to really help us manage this repatriation exercise.”
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said the company’s collapse was “very sad news for staff and holidaymakers” and that the government and CAA were “working round the clock to help people”.
Business Secretary Andrea Leadsom said she would write to the Insolvency Service to ask them to “fast-track” their investigation into the circumstances surrounding Thomas Cook going into liquidation.
Thomas Cook had been one of the world’s oldest and largest travel companies, established in 1841 by a cabinet maker who organised a day trip for temperance movement supporters.
According to its website, the group employed 21,000 people in 16 countries operating 105 aircraft and 200 own-brand hotels and resorts. It had 550 stores in the UK – many of them loss-making.
It was hit hard by online competition, a changing travel market, terrorist attacks in destinations such as Tunisia and last year’s European heatwaves. People postponing holidays due to Brexit uncertainty and higher fuel costs also weighed heavily on the company.
Thomas Cook had a rescue deal in place with investors but faced a last-minute demand from its lenders that it has more funds on standby to see it through the tougher winter months.
PM Boris Johnson told Sky News that a government bailout would have created a “moral hazard” by encouraging other companies to take unnecessary risks.
One investor, Fosun Tourism Group, the owner of Club Med, had committed £450m to Thomas Cook under the plan to save the business.
It said in a statement: “Fosun is disappointed that Thomas Cook Group has not been able to find a viable solution for its proposed recapitalisation with other affiliates, core lending banks, senior noteholders and additional involved parties.
“Fosun confirms that its position remained unchanged throughout the process, but unfortunately other factors have changed.
“We extend our deepest sympathy to all those affected by this outcome.”