How will government rescue Thomas Cook holidaymakers? The 2017 repatriation of Monarch Airline passengers shows the way

The government quickly became the UK’s fifth largest airline following the closure of Monarch Airlines. After winning the project delivery excellence award at the 2018 Civil Service Awards, Eirik Pitkethly told Civil Service World earlier this year how the Department for Transport did it

Eirik Pitkethly (centre) with the Monarch rescue team at the Department for Transport. Photo: Baldo Sciacca

By Emma Sheppard

23 Sep 2019

The collapse of the holiday firm Thomas Cook has seen the government launch the biggest ever peacetime repatriation effort to bring more than 150,000 British holidaymakers home. The drive is modelled on the successful repatriation of passengers after the collapse of Monarch Airways in 2017. In an article originally published in February, CSW looked at how it was achieved after this operation won the project delivery excellence award at the 2018 Civil Service Awards.

Eirik Pitkethly still remembers where he was when he found out that Monarch Airlines had collapsed on 2 October, 2017. Pitkethly – who was then deputy director for aviation strategy at the Department for Transport (DfT) – had just moved house and was standing in the living room, surrounded by boxes, when his phone rang. “[It was] Richard Moriarty, who was the head of the consumer and markets group (part of the Civil Aviation Authority) at the time. He said, ‘Eirik I hope you’re not busy in the immediate future because we’re going to have one of those phone calls’.”

The ensuing repatriation of more than 100,000 people was the UK’s biggest peacetime operation, facilitated by Pitkethly’s team in collaboration with the CAA, which hired 60 planes from numerous airlines to ensure passengers weren’t stranded. The vast majority (an estimated 98%) arrived home within hours of their original flight time. It’s an achievement that won the team the project delivery excellence award at the 2018 Civil Service Awards.

“Sometimes as civil servants, you can be really focused on assessing the impact of everything and getting caught up in almost critical self reflection,” Pitkethly says. “Winning the award forced us all to stand back and [realise] that was something a little bit special.”

He describes Monarch’s decline as “the industry’s worst kept secret for many years”. That gave the DfT time to draw up and test contingency plans while the department watched the situation unfold. In 2014, for example, the founding Mantegazza family invested tens of millions into the business before selling it to the private equity firm, Greybull Capital. The CAA still considered its finances fragile. And two years later in 2016, there were rumours circulating that a closure was imminent, as the deadline for Monarch’s Air Travel Organiser’s Licence (ATOL) renewal loomed, before Greybull Capital invested £165m to keep the airline going.

Amid the airline’s challenges, highly confidential arrangements were being made by the CAA and DfT. “One of our perennial fears and biggest challenges was keeping everything secret,” Pitkethly says. “We knew the company was in trouble, we knew it was seeking a buyer but any day it could reach the end of the road and go into administration. We had to be ready for that but if our preparations leaked, they might actually cause the thing we were trying to avoid.”  

When the news was confirmed that the airline would be going out of business, action was immediately taken to repatriate the British travellers stuck abroad. Pitkethly, the DfT and the CAA teams worked together to set up what would effectively be the UK’s fifth largest airline from scratch, hiring 60 planes to fly to more than 30 destinations. Many of the aircraft came from Qatar Airlines via British Airways, and United Airlines in the US. Logistically, Pitkethly admits getting aircraft into the right place at the right time, was the biggest obstacle and the CAA’s experience in this area was invaluable.

“You can get planes but if you need them within 48 hours, you need to know at least 72 hours [beforehand] … to fuel and crew the plane, fly the plane over, give the crew enough time to rest,” he says. “I know a lot more about hiring planes and running an airline than I did before.”

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