LONDON — Hundreds of thousands of vacationers were in limbo on Monday after the world’s oldest travel firm, Thomas Cook, collapsed, prompting the largest peacetime repatriation effort in British history.
The company had gone out of business after it failed to secure a rescue package from its lenders, Chief Executive Peter Fankhauser said early Monday.
The U.K.’s Civil Aviation Authority confirmed that Thomas Cook had closed its doors, and the regulator and government were mobilizing a fleet of aircraft from around the world to bring more than 150,000 customers currently abroad.
British Transport Minister Grant Shapps tweeted that the company’s collapse has led to the “biggest peacetime repatriation in the U.K. history.”
“We will bring everyone home,” Schapps said. “An enormous task, there will be some delays, but we’re working round the clock to do everything we can.”
The CAA said that the first repatriation flight has left John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York and was headed for the English city of Manchester with over 300 passengers on board.
Due to the significant scale of the situation, “some disruption is inevitable,” it said.
Thomas Cook ran hotels, resorts and airlines for 19 million people a year in 16 countries. It also employed 21,000 people.
On Monday, the company’s website was down. Instead, it ran a message saying the U.K. business had “ceased trading with immediate effect and all future flights and holidays are cancelled.”
Customers who were still in the U.K. and had yet to travel were told by the Civil Aviation Authority not to travel to the airport as their flight would not be running. Those who were already overseas were also told not to go to the airport in their destination until their flight back home has been confirmed.
Hundreds of stranded passengers took to social media to share their anger and disappointment.
“We’re currently in Turkey with our 7-year-old son due to fly home on Wednesday,” Liverpool-based Natasha Cook tweeted Monday. “Haven’t received any emails, unsure of what to do next, highly doubt our Thomas Cook rep will be at the hotel today and I couldn’t blame her. All those jobs gone! Awful, someone should be accountable!”
Meanwhile, company employees were posting pictures of themselves walking from their last flights.
“I actually feel so sick and empty inside. My dream job gone in a blink of an eye,” Kia Dawn Hayward, a member of the company’s cabin crew, said on Twitter. “Us staff at Thomas Cook could fill a sea with all our tears right now.”
The British aviation regulator has been contacting hotels hosting Thomas Cook customers to tell them that they will be paid by a financial protection scheme. Some customers at a hotel in Tunisia said they were prevented from leaving the property unless they paid extra fees, the BBC reported.
The liquidation marks the end of one of Britain’s oldest companies that started life in 1841 running local rail excursions before it survived two world wars to pioneer package holidays and mass tourism.
Crippled by its 1.7 billion pounds ($2.1 billion) of debt, Thomas Cook has been hit by online competition and a changing travel market.
British travel firm Thomas Cook collapses, strands 150,000 holidaymakers – NBCNews.com