Thomas Cook: How the UK upstaged Nigeria in the biggest citizen-repatriation exercise in recent history

UK flexes repatriation muscle
  • Following the xenophobia attacks, Nigerians rightly celebrated Air Peace for airlifting 350 citizens in its first stage of repatriation from South Africa. Another 320 are planned
  • Business Insider SSA questioned why the Nigerian government didn't take the lead like it did in Libya in 2018
  • The United Kingdom just showed how its done by planning to repatriate 150,000 of its citizens over two weeks in the biggest rescue exercise in recent history
  • They made the announcement on the same day that Thomas Cook, a 178-year-old travel firm, collapsed leading to over 150,000 UK vacationers being stranded around the world

The west does it best?

The gods of public relations patriotism just couldn't let the Nigerian government and Air Peace bask in goodwill for too long. Two weeks after Business Insider SSA faulted the Nigerian government's leadership in evacuation efforts in South Africa compared to the stellar exercise in Libya in 2018, up stepped the United Kingdom to demonstrate how to lead in history-making fashion.

Thomas Cook and the dish of debt

British global travel firm Thomas Cook is 178 years old. Founded by a businessman of the same name in 1841, the company boasted 22,000 employees in 16 countries with £9 billion in annual sales and 19 million customers.

As trends in the travel agency business changed over the years, the company faced stiff competition from the internet in the mold of more nimble online firms and customers choosing to package their trips themselves.

Facing a cash crunch in 2011, the company was able to raise money from a consortium of banks who provided it with a loan. It raised further cash from Shareholders in 2013. It was not enough. In 2019, cash dried up again (the firm carried a debt burden of £1.6 billion) and the company sought help from banks and then a bailout from the UK government. Neither was forthcoming since there was little confidence in the sustainability of the business model. The firm subsequently declared bankruptcy and threw in the towel on twitter.

UK travelers stranded around the world, Government steps in

The collapse of the company left more than 150,000 UK vacationers around the world stranded as a result of their trip packages being cancelled. The same day the company made its announcement to fold up, the UK government and Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) stepped in with the following announcement on the government's website

"Following the collapse of Thomas Cook and the cancellation of all its flights, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps has announced that the government and UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) has hired dozens of charter planes to fly customers home free of charge.

All customers currently abroad with Thomas Cook who are booked to return to the UK over the next 2 weeks will be brought home as close as possible to their booked return date.

The flights will start operating from today (23 September 2019)."

How much is this costing the UK Government?

Estimated cost is £79 million (N35.7 billion) per Bloomberg

Travel package insurance will cover most of the cost. Meet ATOL

UK and European law require that travel companies like Thomas Cook who offer holiday packages (flight + hotel and more) should protect travelers against unforeseen circumstances that may adversely affect their trip, including folding up of the travel company. This birthed the Air Travel Organisers' Licensing (ATOL) in 1973, a financial protection scheme run by the UK's Civil Aviation Authority. All travel company members are required to pay £2.50 for each traveler they sign up. The contributions are held by the UK's Air Travel Trust (ATT) fund.

Going the extra mile for return flights to the UK

The website added:

"For flights back to the UK, it doesn’t matter whether customers are ATOL protected or not, or what their nationality is. Everyone on a Thomas Cook holiday with a return flight to the UK within the 2 weeks will be brought home."

Nigeria has ATOL - For a non-refundable fee of N500,000

Ease of doing business? Click here to see the laundry list of requirements to get the license from the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA).

The UK Masterclass in evacuation

The UK government will complete the exercise over the next two weeks. While Nigeria is to be commended for coming to the aid of her citizens in South Africa (via a private sector player), there is lots to learn from what the UK has demonstrated.


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