The collapse of Thomas Cook led to the biggest government repatriation operation since the Second World War. Senior figures in the Department for Transport tell Richard Johnstone how it was done
At 2.01am on 23 September 2019, 178 years of travel history came to an immediate, juddering halt. The Monday morning announcement that the world’s oldest holiday company, Thomas Cook, had closed meant thousands of passengers were stranded in 55 different locations around the globe.
Just two minutes later, another statement marked the start of the government’s largest repatriation exercise since the Second World War to bring them home. The message from the Civil Aviation Authority, which is part of the Department for Transport, said Thomas Cook had ceased trading with immediate effect.
Just over an hour later, it was confirmed that the government was organising new flights for Thomas Cook passengers as the DfT plan to get people home was swiftly put into action.
Codenamed Operation Matterhorn, the scheme had been in development for almost a year, Gareth Davies, the department’s director general for Brexit, security, aviation and maritime, reveals.
The firm had been on the department’s watch list for struggling operators, he tells CSW.
“For months we had been looking at: firstly, what situation was the company in, and secondly, should the worst happen, what are the policy options for repatriating British travellers?”
Although it would eventually lead to the successful mobilisation of 746 flights to get over 140,000 holidaymakers home, planning was difficult in the early days, Davies says.
“It had to be very much at arm’s length,” he recalls. “We didn’t speak directly to the company, because obviously that would potentially trigger concerns. We worked with the CAA to understand the financial situation, and internally with ministers to think about what the government’s role would be.”
Indeed, the first question was what the scale of the response should be. Although the department had run a similar operation in October 2017 when the airline Monarch went bust, taking on Thomas Cook was a much bigger challenge, with more passengers and more complex, and longer-haul routes.
Once both former transport secretary Chris Grayling and his successor Grant Shapps made it clear that the government would get everyone home, Davies says the department began to look at how it could be done.
Catherine Adams, who worked on the plan as the deputy director of aviation strategy and consumers, said the department was “starting to get concerned” in December 2018, before the Matterhorn team was formed in the spring.
Planning was hindered by the vagaries of the travel market – there were different destinations and passenger volumes between summer and autumn, for example – but much could still be done, Davies (right) says.
“We used openly-available data to start to map out the locations, and what alternative planes [were available]. In some destinations like New York, there’s a lot of other flights and capacity. Some other destinations are just charter planes, so we can start to get a sense of what the role of government would be in terms of needing to charter specific planes, what the demands on [Foreign Office] consular staff would be.”
Finding planes was necessary because under insolvency rules the department could not take over the licences for Thomas Cook’s planes, and the challenge of essentially forming the UK’s fourth-largest airline from scratch quickly became apparent.
Initial modelling found that the CAA, which led on finding the replacement aircraft, would need 40-45 planes to replicate Thomas Cook’s routes, but a total of 150 planes were eventually used as they were subbed in and out dependent on availability.
“We were talking about a very different operation than we eventually ended up being able to do, but we didn’t have confidence around the number of planes the CAA would be able to source until the week before the operation went live,” Adams recalls.
The team developed what Adams calls “trigger points” for when it would need to put the plan into action, with September 2019 being “the highest risk period as we saw it”. However, there were earlier flashpoints that the company had survived. “You’re at varying degrees of readiness at those different points in time, as new information comes to light,” she adds.
Planning got more intense as the problems mounted and engagement with the company increased. A week before closure, the decision was made to start booking planes.
“Even though we weren’t sure this was going to happen, we made a call that we needed to be ready,” Davies says. “By doing that we were able to get the first rescue flight out three hours after the company went bankrupt.”
Caroline Low, the director of the department’s airport expansion unit, had been brought in to – in her words – babysit Matterhorn planning from the beginning of September, covering for people on leave. It soon became apparent that it would be more than a watching brief.
“It was about a week later, I thought, ‘oh, this might actually happen’,” she says.
Then it did. “I took the call from the chief executive at 5pm on the Sunday evening,” Davies says. “I then had to speak to the team and we had set up a full 24-hour operation centre, not just in the Department for Transport, but the Foreign Office had done exactly the same as well, and the CAA, which had the bulk of the operational work [hiring planes], did the same. We had three operational centres running, so that Sunday into Monday was pretty full on.”
“We knew that it was pretty likely that they would file [for bankruptcy] overnight when most of the planes were on the ground,” Low says. “I stayed in the hotel near the department that I think I got to about 11 o’clock [on the Sunday night], and I came back [to the department] at 4am.”
The immediate priority was providing clear communication to those stranded around the world, and in establishing what those involved called the “battle rhythm” of the cross-government response.
Given the need to provide clear messages, comms officials were involved in the planning from the start, Suzanne Edmonds, the department’s director of communications, says.
“As policy [officials] start sitting down and looking at this, communications is there as well. So at that point, we'll be looking at all the different scenarios and trying to plan the communications around it,” she says. In this case, the lessons from Monarch were particularly crucial. “That was the first time we've done anything like this as a department. And we learned a huge amount of lessons that we use as a kind of playbook if you like, as a basis for it.”
As the operation neared, communications because vital. “We'd been in all weekend," Edmonds says. “I covered the Sunday day… as I left on the Sunday night, everything was ready to go on the assumption that insolvency would happen, and the plan would kick in the early morning. And then I came back in about half five that next morning.”
Davies too recalls the vital clarity of the comms message in those early Monday hours. “We were able to say right at the start that there wasn’t uncertainty. We were saying: don’t worry, continue your holiday. The plan is to fly back on the day you’re expected to fly back, if that changes, we’ll tell you. You should be able to get back to the airport you’re expected to get back to and if not, we’ll put on a coach or a taxi and get you there, at no additional cost.”
Adams says it was vital people were reassured at a moment when “the beach towel’s being pulled out from underneath you”.
“The priority in this was getting the messages out to the people who were stranded overseas that we’re on our way,” she says. “Put yourself in those people’s shoes, they’re thinking: ‘how do I get home? What do I do with my kids? I haven’t got enough money on my credit card.’ We were trying to think through what messages to get out immediately.”
DfT was also working closely with other departments – from the Foreign Office to ensure consular staff could provide support at airports, to helping the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy plan the response for the newly-unemployed Thomas Cook staff, and getting assistance from 300 officials in HM Revenue and Customs’s surge and rapid response team.
Using approaches developed by the Cabinet Office civil contingences secretariat – and leaning on staff training that had been given as a result of preparing for a no-deal Brexit – the DfT operations centre worked in a round-the-clock rota of eight-hour shifts to manage the response.
“We moved into a 24/7 [footing], and we’d produce a sit rep [situation report] four times a day,” Davies says. “We were trying to do two things at the same time – both get the battle rhythm right while deploying the planes, and make sure we had the right people in the right locations.”
While all this was happening, that first rescue flight took off. “The thing I remember about the Monday morning was that the CAA had got one of their pre-secured planes in place in New York,” Low recalls. “There’s a lot of behind the scenes sorting out that you have to do when you put a new plane into a new airport, and we were watching it on the Skyscanner website. We were willing that plane off the ground to bring the first people home.”
The rota was staffed by officials who volunteered for the extra work, Adams (right) says.
“Some people did loads of shifts, some people did two or three shifts, people working weekends. People were doing long days. The flexibility was a credit to all involved, and it wasn’t just our department. FCO were running a similar operation, CAA staff dropped everything, and most departments had some response centre operating.”
Although a lot of planning had gone into Matterhorn, there were some practical difficulties.
Ministers were very clear that they wanted to make sure that there was a physical government presence at all the locations, Adams says, but “the logistics were difficult”.
Some staff had been sent overseas in anticipation the weekend before the closure to supplement both Foreign Office consular staff and CAA ground-handling staff round the world, but Low says providing them with technology proved problematic.
“The poor person who had to buy something like 100 iPads and ship them out around the world – so government staff at airports could have access to the latest flight data – found that was much more difficult than they thought it would be. Getting them and the hi-viz tabards couriered to various locations was probably one of the more challenging jobs.”
Planes had to be in the right places as well as people and technology, Adams says.
“Even if you found planes that were available, they might be in the wrong part of the world. And there are limits to how long crews can fly, and to how far a craft can fly in a particular week, and fuel constraints and safety constraints and maintenance checks. All of that needed to be coordinated.”
After that first flight departed, willed on by Low and her colleagues, the regular drumbeat of returns could indeed be heard. According to the CAA, 95% of Thomas Cook customers due back on day one were repatriated, with 64 flights bringing back more than 14,700 passengers. The number of flights increased over the next few days until, at the end of the first week, 106,000 Thomas Cook holidaymakers had been returned. Around 94% of passengers were flown back on the original days of their Thomas Cook flight by the end of the two-week operation.
The fleet was “kind of cobbled together,” Adams admits. “Some planes were only available for two days or three days. They were subbing in and out, and that meant the CAA schedule couldn’t replicate fully the Thomas Cook schedule,” she recalls. “If you’re flying a big plane like an Airbus A380, you can get more people on it. But if you could only get a smaller craft, then you’d have to do two flights rather than one.”
The second week of the repatriation was smoother, as without a week of holidaymakers flying out, there were fewer people overseas.
Low (right) says: “We had always thought that most people would come back in the first week and by the time we went into the second week the volumes dropped a lot, as not that many people were on two-week holidays.”
Even with the planning, there were “lots of little technical issues” in some far-flung places, according to Davies.
“There were some quite complex issues with some, quite understandably frustrated, hoteliers who hadn’t been paid,” he says, particularly in Cuba. “We had to give them assurance, working with the FCO, that they would get their money back.”
The operation was completed on the morning of 7 October, when a final flight arrived at Manchester from Orlando with 392 passengers onboard. “Everyone who wanted to come home was able to come home,” Davies says. “We got some great letters from members of the public thanking us for the operation. I think it’s a great example of what government can do when it’s got a clear goal, a real sense of purpose and mission and is able to work as one team.”
The department is currently going through a “lessons learned” review, while the government has pledged to create a special administration regime that would allow the CAA to grant a temporary operating licence to enable a company’s planes to keep flying long enough for passengers to be repatriated, meaning the CAA wouldn’t need to source planes in future.
There is pride across the team that Matterhorn was successfully stepped up, albeit tinged with sadness that the operation was needed at all.
“Nobody wants something like this to happen, ever,” Low says. “We were always really conscious of the people who lost their jobs, and the people who have a difficult time getting home as well as the ones who ended up in first class. But I think we took a great deal of satisfaction from the way we responded to it.”
“It’s quite bittersweet,” Adams concurs. “It’s an absolute highlight professionally, it’s amazing what a group of people pulled off. But a company went bust, and it’s an iconic company that’s got a huge amount of history and it affected people’s lives.
“I was at a dinner recently for young people who are learning to fly, and absolutely passionate about flying. There was a young pilot there, and he’d had job experience at Monarch, and then he was a pilot at Thomas Cook. He landed his plane, and people came on and said: ‘this company’s insolvent, you need to get off this craft right now’. That’s why it’s bittersweet. It was professionally amazing, but I wish it hadn’t happened.”
An urgent matter DfT perm sec Bernadette Kelly (centre) with the Matterhorn team