Operation Matterhorn: Thomas Cook customers flown home on A380

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Following the announcement of Thomas Cook’s bankruptcy on September 23, 2019, more than 600,000 holidaymakers found themselves without return flights home. The collapse of the tour operator left British authorities with a major task of repatriating more than 150,000 of its citizens. In response, the Civil Aviation Authority launched the UK’s largest repatriation operation back to Britain in peacetime, known as “Operation Matterhorn”. The scale and urgency of the mission is best reflected considering that passengers left stranded in the Spanish Balearic Island of Mallorca are flown back to Manchester, UK, on an Airbus A380 leased from Malaysia Airlines.

Talking to the BBC on September 22, 2019, on the brink of Thomas Cook’s insolvency declaration, UK’s Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab assured the government and the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) had dozens of charter planes on stand-by, ready to fly customers back home free of charge if the travel agent collapses. When travellers’ worst fears were realized the next day, more than 600,000 of Thomas Cook customers were left stranded, out of which, 150,000 were British passengers.

Raab noted the government had learned lessons from the collapse of Monarch Airlines in 2017, when 110,000 travelers were left overseas. Described by the CAA as “the biggest ever UK airline failure” at the time authorities organized flights back to the UK for all Monarch customers stranded abroad. Chris Grayling, the British Transportation Secretary during the Monarch crisis, described the effort as “the biggest ever peacetime repatriation”. The emergency operation following Thomas Cook’s collapse, however, has taken over the title.

The British Department for Transport and Civil Aviation Authority had prepared plans for rescue flights under the code name “Operation Matterhorn”. Launched on September 23, 3019, the two-week mission should last until October 6, 2019, with around 900 flights planned in total. According to the latest update by the CAA over 127,000 passengers have so far been flown back to the UK with around 40 flights being operated each day in the repatriation effort and a total of 607 completed to date. Another 5,000 people are expected to be brought back on October 3, 2019, on 25 scheduled flights.

The authorities state they have so far flown back about 94% of people on their original date of departure of their cancelled Thomas Cook flight. However, CAA has also warned, on October 3, 2019, that the passengers due to be repatriated over the coming days may not return to their original departure airport. “With just four days until the end of our flight programme and 19,000 people left to bring back to the UK, we are beginning to combine more Thomas Cook flights into single CAA flights,” said Richard Moriarty, Chief Executive at the UK CAA. “We are sorry that, for some passengers, this means they will not arrive at the UK airport they had originally booked to return to. For these flights, the CAA will be on hand when they land to help them with their onward journeys,” he added.

With more than 130 aircraft that have since been used as part of the operation, the British CAA has basically assembled an entire airline. Among the planes chartered for the repatriation effort is the Malaysian Airlines’ Airbus A380. The Superjumbo was once utilized on non-stop flights between Kuala Lumpur (KUL) and London Heathrow (LHR) – a journey that covers about 10,605 km (5,935 miles) lasting up to 14 hours, and is now flown on the airline’s A350-900. Today, however, the Malaysian A380 is available for charter operations: the double-decker is returning British travelers from Palma de Mallorca (PMI) to Manchester (MAN), with onward connections including to Stansted and Gatwick, the Independent reports. Capable of seating up to 500 on board, the A380 covers only around 1,580 km (982 miles) on the direct flight, which takes two and a half hours.

According to the BBC, “Operation Matterhorn” is expected to cost around £100 million in total, with 60% of the sum covered by the Air Travel Organizer’s License (ATOL), the UK CAA’s travelers’ financial protection scheme, and 40% by the British government. Over 360,000 future Thomas Cook bookings (protected by ATOL) are to be refunded encompassing about 800,000 customers.


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