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Thomas Cook: Why did the world's oldest travel firm go bust?

A man holds information on Thomas Cook flights at Manchester Airport, Manchester, Britain September 23, 2019.
A man holds information on Thomas Cook flights at Manchester Airport, Manchester, Britain September 23, 2019. Copyright REUTERS/Phil Noble
Copyright REUTERS/Phil Noble
By Alice Tidey
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After 178 years in business, Thomas Cook, the world's oldest travel company, has gone bust. It's just the latest in a long line of European carriers to have close up shop over the past two years.


After 178 years in business, Britain's Thomas Cook, the world's oldest travel company, has gone bust.

Thomas Cook's collapse on Monday sparked the UK's largest repatriation in peacetime history. About 600,000 people were left stranded abroad — 150,000 of whom are UK residents.

The announcement from CEO Peter Fankhauser came after the board failed to secure a deal with creditors and the government to bail it out of its £1.6 billion (€1.8 billion) debt pile.

Where did it all go wrong?

For Simon Calder, travel editor at the Independent newspaper, the company's troubles stem from the fact that it "didn't keep up with transformations".

"Thomas Cook revolutionised travel, they did amazing things, they democratised it, they industrialised travel, they really invented the package holiday," he told Euronews.

"But then in the late stages of the 20th century, and particularly in the 21rst century, they took their eye off the ball. They didn't quite sort of realise that people — largely a lot of younger people — aren't using high street travel agents.

"They were slow with the internet and they simply didn't take much notice of the big low-cost airlines such as EasyJet and Ryanair," he added.

READ MORE: Repatriation begins after the collapse of travel firm Thomas Cook

According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), Brits were much more likely to go on holidays abroad in 2016 than they did in 1996 but the trends had been completely upended.

"In the last 20 years, UK tourists have turned their backs on traditional two-week holidays in favour of short breaks and week-long trips," the ONS wrote in a report.

It noted that back in the 1990s, "hardly anyone had access to the internet, so you probably booked your trip by going to a travel agent or finding a cheap package deal on Teletext".

The Internet and the emergence of no-frill airlines saw passenger numbers at UK airports increased by 85% over the past two decades, from 135 million to 251 million and travellers needed no longer buying packages but could independently plan affordable holidays.

According to the Centre for Aviation (CAPA), a research company specialised in the aviation and travel industry, the Thomas Cook Group carried 20 million airline passengers in the year ending September 2018.

This made it the 14th biggest European airlines in terms of passenger numbers. The Lufthansa Group and Ryanair occupied the first two spots, each carrying 142 million and 139 million passengers.

Still, according to Paul Davies, head of UK Travel research at Mintel, "Thomas Cook's decline should not be confused with the demise of the package holiday."


"In fact, the package holiday market is still performing well. Unfortunately for Thomas Cook, it lost out to its rivals within this sector, most notably TUI and Jet2, with Mintel's research showing that these brands consistently deliver a better customer experience," he told Euronews.

READ MORE: Thomas Cook employees take to social media following liquidation

The low-cost airlines and their cut-throat prices have certainly been a boon to customers but legacy airlines, which have been forced to decrease their own prices, still can't align themselves.

The Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS), an independent Brussels-based think tank, found last year that that low-cost airlines are on average 40% cheaper than legacy carriers on international flights and 20% on domestic flights.


"I actually bought, would you believe, just before midnight, a Thomas Cook holiday," Calder told Euronews on Monday.

"A week in Greece next month and no I won't be going. But it only cost me €210 for flights, accommodations, transfers, everything else. Nobody is making money at that sort of price," he added.

Thomas Cook is certainly just the latest in a long line of European carriers to have to close up shop over the past two years.

Earlier this year, Britain's Flybmi, Germany's Germania and Iceland's Wow Air went bust. The year prior, it was Monarch Airlines and Air Berlin amongst others. France's Aigle Azur and XL Airways are both seeking rescue deals at the moment.


But for Mintel's Davies, "whilst Thomas Cook's collapse is sad news for its employees and holidaymakers, its established competitors are now suddenly presented with further opportunities for growth"

"EasyJet Holidays will no doubt be factoring this into its strategy ahead of its relaunch later this year," he added.

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