Operation Matterhorn: The inside story of how UK responded to Thomas Cook collapse

“Twelve hour shifts, no weekends, doing something you’ve never done before” – that, says Dame Deirdre Hutton, was part of the job description for Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) staff working on Operation Matterhorn.

She is the chair of the CAA, and has spent the past 12 days overseeing the UK’s biggest-ever airlift from a fifth-floor open-plan office, on the Isle of Dogs in London’s Docklands.

A team of up to 500 people have been working with Dame Deirdre: in the CAA HQ, at the flight-planning operation in Stansted, and at airports across the UK and the world.

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Thomas Cook went bust at 2am on Monday 23 September. Within an hour the CAA’s “shadow airline” had planes in the air, flying to destinations around the Mediterranean and the world to pick up British holidaymakers booked to fly with the bankrupt company.

The planning had begun well before the company announced it was going into liquidation, says Andy Cohen – normally head of Atol, but right now co-ordinating the repatriation.

“You have to think very carefully about how you go about preparing your contingency plans. Our main aim is that that company survives, and everything continues as normal.

“So we have to be extremely careful that we don’t have to cause the company to collapse ourselves by taking any actions.”

When Monarch Airlines – a much smaller operation – collapsed two years ago, planespotters had already predicted the carrier’s imminent demise, based on identifying aircraft movements around Europe that clearly mimicked the doomed airline’s network.

“We never position planes until 48 hours before the failure,” says Cohen.

“Some of these planespotters, they should be working for the security services, they’re so good at it. What we learnt is that we have to put these planes in locations where they’re not easily spotted.

“So if we have an American carrier that’s used to going somewhere like Shannon [in Ireland] for troop movements, then we put the plane there. And that tends to work.”

Finding planes was particularly tricky this autumn, he says, because of the worldwide grounding of the Boeing 737 Max after two fatal accidents.

“The issues with the 737 Max meant that many of the aircraft we would like to get in this particular instance were not available to us. So we had to use aircraft from smaller carriers, which have less resilience.

“The number one criterion is safety. And secondly, that they were willing to partner with us, in secrecy, so we could have planes on demand when required.”

While the aircraft were deployed around Europe, CAA staff were redeployed around the office. An operations room was set up in the library. Screens show the schedule and the status of every flight in the pop-up fleet.

Thomas Cook had both long- and short-haul flights, and some of the latter were to tricky locations – such as the Greek island of Skiathos, with a short and difficult runway. “You can’t just put any old plane in there,” says Cohen.

Because no airline is any use unless passengers turn up to fly on it, a team was set up to grind through the data from Thomas Cook about which passengers were expecting to fly on which routes, and when.

Every whiteboard in Whitehall, it seems, has been requisitioned by the CAA for this complex operation. Most are decorated with hieroglyphics containing the alphabet of airport codes from AGP (Malaga) to ZTH (Zakinthos), numbers of “pax” (passengers) and notes such as “4 TC staff”.

Civil service staff from Whitehall  – the Foreign Office and the Department for Transport – have been requisitioned too. They are embedded in the CAA HQ, to provide support – which proved invaluable when hotels in Cuba started demanding that Thomas Cook holidaymakers paid again.

In the first few days of Operation Matterhorn, the CAA had contacted all 3,000 Thomas Cook hotels around the world and explained that they would be getting paid for the current guests.

But the message wasn’t always received well by property owners who are unlikely to be paid for the key months of July and August. One hotel on the Riviera Maya in Mexico is said to be owned £2m by Thomas Cook.

“They’ve got every right to be grumpy,” says Dame Deirdre Hutton, “But holding our passengers hostage is not the answer.”

At call centres in Gateshead and Glasgow, calls began coming in by the thousand. Meanwhile on the social media desk, messages were targeted on key resorts to alert holidaymakers to the Thomas Cook collapse and direct them to the official website, thomascook.caa.co.uk.

Most incoming calls and messages were routine, seeking reassurance that what was promised on the website would actually happen. But tricky cases were sent to “Escalations”: for example people in the UK calling to make sure that older relatives needing special assistance would be looked after, or travellers with electric wheelchairs wanting certainty that their precious mobility aid would be able to travel safely with them. 

In any large population of holidaymakers, there is a regular incidence of problems: people who need to come back early because of a family emergency; illness that delays a trip home; and the disorganised or confused traveller who misses their flight. In the absence of Thomas Cook, all of these cases become the concerns of the staff at the CAA.

As does Rocky, a large rescue dog currently on the island of Fuerteventura in the Canaries. (To be clear, he is not helping in the rescue operation but was rescued by a British couple who are now trying to take him home with them.) So far, the quest has defeated even the CAA team on the Isle of Dogs.

In the second week of Operation Matterhorn, the challenge has moved from sheer scale to managing capacity efficiently. Because Thomas Cook holidaymakers on one-week breaks did not travel out from Monday 23 September onwards, they do not need to be brought back. Fewer than half as many holidaymakers will be flown home in week two, but many of them are touching down at unfamiliar airports.

On Sunday 6 October, for example, passengers booked on Thomas Cook flights from Palma to Bristol, Gatwick and Glasgow will arrive at Manchester. 

“Generally we make people go to the middle of the country,” says Cohen.

Those passengers landing at Manchester will see the Thomas Cook Airlines HQ and a row of planes parked outside it. Hundreds of Thomas Cook cabin crew and flight crew are available, because they were not expecting to lose their jobs.

After the Monarch collapse two years ago, everyone agreed it would be a good idea to keep a failing airline aloft for long enough to recover passengers and close down gently, rather than spending a fortune assembling a “shadow” carrier that is never going to be a perfect match. But it would require some uncontentious legislation to be passed, to allow aircraft from an airline that is technically bankrupt to continue flying, and to provide protection from creditors. And as you may have noticed, the government’s attention has been elsewhere for the past few years.

Top CAA executives have left their desks and are currently stationed at big British airports – Gatwick, Birmingham and Manchester in particular. They are helping passengers who have touched down on the right day in the right country, but who need to be bussed to their final destinations (or, in the case of Belfast, booked on easyJet or other airlines – at the CAA’s expense).

At the bus station at Manchester airport this week, a gentleman who had just stepped off a bus from Birmingham airport stopped me to say: “I think the government’s doing a fantastic job. Make sure you report that.” Another passenger told me: “I think it’s worked miraculously.”

In any airline, whether long-established or only 12 days old, stuff happens: a wheel needed to be flown from Paris to Cancun in Mexico for a grounded Airbus A380; an earthquake in Istanbul interrupted services at Antalya in Turkey; and thunderstorms in southeast Europe on Thursday wrought havoc with Greek flights.

Perhaps inevitably travellers who encounter problems are far more likely to pipe up than those who have had smooth journeys.

One passenger, Norman McLeod, relates his experience coming back from Kalamata in the Greek Peloponnese: “The CAA sent an aircraft with 180 seats to collect 290 passengers. We were consequently bumped, sent to a hotel overnight together with a further 30 bumped off a Manchester flight.

“We eventually arriving back at Birmingham 27 hours late, at 11pm, on an Air Malta-liveried aircraft staffed by DAT Scandinavian personnel who had been sitting in Gatwick from 10am not knowing where they were going.”

Cohen says: “We have our moments and we make mistakes. But the key to it is that when we make mistakes we rectify them and learn from them.

“The data we received from the company was not as we would like it, which gave us extra difficulties. It’s the worst I’ve seen for a company of this size.”

Rather than a centralised register of everyone booked aboard Thomas Cook Airlines between 23 September and 6 October, staff had to trawl through 150 different reservation systems to identify the 150,000-plus travellers who were believed to be abroad with the holiday firm.

Dame Deirdre tells of two elderly women who happened to be abroad with Monarch at the time of that firm’s collapse, and found themselves two years later being repatriated once more as Thomas Cook customers.

“Because they had travelled with us before, they were very relaxed and comfortable.” Then she goes off to check her team are relaxed and comfortable. A masseur is in the building on Friday afternoon, and a bowl of fruit or a bag of sweets is never far from reach.

“If you’re asking people to go above and beyond, you’ve got to keep them going,” says the CAA chair.

The actual customer of Operation Matterhorn is the transport secretary, Grant Shapps, who says he is “incredibly proud” of the CAA response: “The collapse of Thomas Cook presented us with a challenge of unprecedented scale.

“So far we have brought more than 130,000 people home but the job’s not finished yet. We are working hard to get everyone back as quickly as possible during this difficult period.”

Once the “difficult period” is over, there will be many questions about why the travel plans of hundreds of thousands of travellers have been disrupted twice in two years – and why nothing has apparently changed in the government’s approach to failing airlines.

Operation Matterhorn is expected to cost £100m, of which £60m will be met by the Atol fund but the remainder picked up by the taxpayer. 

Dame Deirdre has one final observation. “For the avoidance of doubt, we never, ever want to do this again.”

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