Grant Shapps is Transport Secretary, and is MP for Welwyn Hatfield.
I was just hours into my role as Transport Secretary when I learned of the full scale of the immense problems facing the tour operator Thomas Cook. The news that the collapse of the oldest travel operator in the world could be imminent – leaving thousands of jobs lost, countless holidays ruined and huge numbers of passengers stranded – was a heart-stopping moment.
I took the decision that, regardless of whether holidaymakers had insurance or not, we could not leave them stranded abroad. The chaos for the individuals involved and the knock on effects to their employers, education and economy with so many hours of work lost was simply too great.
In the months that followed, my Department and the Civil Aviation Authority, prepared behind the scenes for the biggest ever repatriation operation in peacetime. The challenge was on an unprecedented scale – greater even than the collapse of Monarch Airlines in 2017. Not only would we have to repatriate hundreds of thousands of passengers. We would also need to stand ready to hire hundreds of planes and buses in a hugely complicated logistical exercise, to get travellers home.
I sincerely hoped that the intricate plans known as Operation Matterhorn would never need to be put into action and that a solution to Thomas Cook’s woes would be swiftly found. But at 2am on September 23, my phone lit up with the message that my team and I had been dreading. Last ditch rescue talks had failed and Thomas Cook had plunged into administration.
Despite the months of preparation and the plans that were already in place, in those murky early hours of an autumnal morning the challenge facing us seemed daunting. Approximately 150,000 travellers – including families with children, as well as elderly and infirm travellers – were now stranded around the world from everywhere from the Costa Blanca to Cuba.
Then there were the hundreds of thousands of passengers, yet to travel, whose much anticipated plans were now in tatters as a result of the tour operator’s collapse and who would now need to be refunded. And, of course, we could not forget the 21,000 loyal Thomas Cook Staff – around 9,000 of whom were based in the UK – who would wake up to find their jobs had vanished. Those were issues we knew about. I was all too aware the subsequent weeks would throw up a host of other challenges, that despite our best efforts we could never have predicted.
Over the next fortnight a team of officials, fuelled by coffee and takeaways, worked from a bunker in the heart of DfT around the clock, to put our plans into action. They acted as a focal point for the Government’s operations –coordinating the multiple Whitehall Departments that were involved in this most challenging of tasks.
Simultaneously, at the headquarters of the Civil Aviation Authority in Canary Wharf, hundreds of staff were working 24/7 under intense pressure, while staff from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and government rapid response staff were sent out to help travellers at airports around the world. As at DfT, many of these workers were parachuted into jobs that were different from their day to day roles – putting their personal lives on hold for weeks.
The combined efforts of these teams succeeded in bringing home 150,000 passengers, on 746 different flights and on scores of aircraft to ten airports around the country. Not only did we get passengers home – 94 pc flew back on their scheduled departure date.
I have been amazed, moved and inspired by the incredible efforts of everyone involved both at my Department and the CAA. And I’m very grateful to the many other Whitehall departments and at the many airports, airlines and other businesses who stepped in to help.
I also want to pay tribute to Thomas Cook’s former employees who helped stranded passengers at what was an immensely difficult time in their own lives. I’m determined that as a government we pull out the stops to help these dedicated, hard-working employees get back to work as soon as possible.
On Monday morning, I visited the CAA’s headquarters to join staff as the last official Operation Matterhorn flight from Orlando touched down on the tarmac at Manchester Airport with 392 passengers. It was a fantastic moment. But we’re not stopping there.
We’ve now moved from the largest ever peacetime repatriation effort to the biggest-ever reimbursement programme. With the CAA, we’re focused on ensuring that 800,000 passengers – many of whom had long awaited travel plans ruined – receive refunds too.
Of course I’m hugely proud of all we have achieved and it’s only right that we celebrate it. However, I also very much wish that Operation Matterhorn had never been needed in the first place. The loss of Thomas Cook, a provider of tens of thousands of jobs, a stalwart of the UK’s travel industry and a firm fixture of High Streets in towns and cities across this country, is profoundly regrettable. I’m glad that for the sake of the company’s many loyal customers, we were able to do everything in our power to step in and mitigate some of the pain caused by its collapse.