LONDON — British travel company Thomas Cook declared bankruptcy Monday, stranding hundreds of thousands of holiday-makers and prompting the British government to initiate what it is calling the largest peacetime repatriation in the nation’s history.
The effort, dubbed Operation Matterhorn, aims to fly 150,000 travelers who were booked on Thomas Cook flights back home to Britain. The mammoth task is expected to cost more than $120 million, said the U.K. Civil Aviation Authority (CAA).
The organization has chartered dozens of planes to fly Thomas Cook travelers home free of charge beginning Monday. Other travelers will be booked on already scheduled flights by other airlines.
“All customers currently abroad with Thomas Cook who are booked to return to the UK over the next two weeks will be brought home as close as possible to their booked return date,” said a government statement.
Scott Hamilton, managing director of Leeham Co., an aviation consultancy, said it would be an operation of extreme magnitude.
“That’s really quite the airlift,” Hamilton said. He speculated that the British government was primarily trying to book as many passengers on other airlines as possible, in addition to chartering aircraft.
Malaysian Airlines reportedly sent at least one Airbus A380, which can seat nearly 500 people, to Manchester, England, presumably to be used for the operation.
If a similar scenario was occurring in the United States, Hamilton said, it would be “every man, woman and child for themselves.” The United States has limited laws protecting air passengers from flight cancellations within the United States. The European Union, renowned for its air passenger rights, has enacted a variety of laws to protect travelers from the financial burden of flight cancellations and delays.
In addition to Britain, other governments also announced special measures Monday.
Turkey’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism ordered hotel staff to not evict or demand extra payments from stranded tourists who had booked their stays with Thomas Cook. The Turkish warning came after reports that several hotels worldwide were refusing to allow some customers to leave their premises unless they paid additional fees.
German aviation analyst Elmar Giemulla said such practices constituted “extortion,” but it was unclear whether travelers who had been successfully pressured into paying hotels would be refunded by insurance or the government.
In countries particularly affected by the Thomas Cook bankruptcy, local officials said Monday that they were helping to coordinate the repatriations.
In Cyprus, authorities met with representatives of the tourism industry to discuss the repatriation of foreigners from the country — and to prepare for adverse repercussions of the bankruptcy on the local tourism industry. Until now, Thomas Cook had accounted for about 5 to 6 percent of all arrivals there, according to the Cyprus Mail. The demise of Thomas Cook also triggered calls in Cyprus to better prepare for similar bankruptcies in the future.
British government representatives are expected to be present at the airports from which repatriation flights will depart in the coming two weeks, according to the Cyprus Mail.
While the collapse of Thomas Cook has predominantly affected British travelers, the German subsidiary of the company, Condor, is similarly at risk of faltering in the coming days. In that case, Germany would be unlikely to launch a similar government-led effort to repatriate its nationals stranded abroad, Giemulla said.
After at least one airline bankruptcy in recent years, representatives of the German aviation industry coordinated those efforts themselves, relying on insurance fees to fund the repatriation efforts.
“A number of airlines would jump in to help,” Giemulla said.
Operation Matterhorn recalls a similar instance in 2017 when Britain’s Monarch Airlines collapsed. At the time, the CAA also stepped in, planning out travel for Monarch patrons to return to Britain in the two weeks after the airline’s closure. Ultimately, the agency operated 700 flights as part of the effort to transport 110,000 stranded passengers home, the Guardian reported.