Britain's biggest peacetime repatriation is complete

London (AFP) - Britain’s government on Monday completed the country’s biggest peacetime repatriation, returning 140,000 UK-based Thomas Cook customers stranded abroad after the collapse of the holiday operator.

The final flight arrived at 8.31 am (0731 GMT), touching down at Manchester airport in northern England from Orlando, Florida, said a spokesman for the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA).

The flight, with 392 passengers onboard, marks the end of the two-week-long Operation Matterhorn – Britain’s biggest repatriation since World War II.

Matterhorn, which involved 150 aircraft from 50 partners worldwide, “required an extraordinary effort from all involved”, CAA chief executive Richard Moriarty said in a statement.

Moriarty paid tribute “to the many amazing former Thomas Cook employees” who helped to make the operation successful.

“It needed an unprecedented team effort from our commercial partners, our friends across government and my colleagues at the CAA,” he added.

Around 600,000 customers were left stranded following the collapse of the 178 year-old company, including around 140,000 who had been due to return to Germany.

Virtually all Thomas Cook’s travellers on holiday at the time of the collapse have since returned home.

The company’s demise sparked 22,000 job losses across the globe, although the liquidator retained some staff to help coordinate its response.

“All staff who have been kept on to assist in the repatriation and wider liquidation… will be paid,” said Monday a spokesman for the official receiver, the body tasked with winding down the company.

- Full refunds -

The CAA on Monday added that it was launching its largest ever customer reimbursement programme under the Air Travel Organiser’s Licence (ATOL) scheme.

The scheme is a safety net, based on an EU directive and managed by the CAA, that covers tourists who have bought all-inclusive trips with flights and hotels.

The CAA expects to issue refunds to more than 360,000 Thomas Cook bookings covering trips that were due to be taken by about 800,000 people.

“We know that customers are devastated by the cancellation of their holidays,” Moriarty said.

“Those who bought a Thomas Cook ATOL-protected holiday are entitled to a full refund of all the money they have paid towards the cost of their holiday.

“In addition to this, ATOL-protected passengers that were abroad when the company went into liquidation might be able to claim for out of pocket expenses,” he added.

British consumer association Which? has meanwhile urged Britons to be patient awaiting their refunds.

“It is understandably frustrating for some Thomas Cook customers that they are now facing problems trying to submit their refunds because of high volumes of online traffic,” said Adam French, consumer rights expert at the organisation.

“It is vital that customers persevere and do not turn to alternative websites, as we’ve seen scammers seeking to take advantage of this situation by setting up convincing sake refund websites to fleece customers.”

The CAA added that it would seek to pay refunds within 60 days of receiving a valid application.

Debt-plagued Thomas Cook struggled against fierce online competition for years and blamed Brexit uncertainty for a drop in bookings.

It declared bankruptcy on September 23 after failing to secure fresh funds. Its biggest shareholder was China’s Fosun Group.