LONDON (AP) — Families stranded, honeymoons and vacations canceled, thousands of workers laid off: The sudden collapse of British tour company Thomas Cook and its network of airlines and hotels sowed chaos for hundreds of thousands of travelers and businesses around the world Monday.
Brought down by a variety of factors, including crushing debts and online competition, the 178-year-old travel agency that helped pioneer the package tour ceased operating in the middle of the night. Its four airlines stopped carrying customers, and its 21,000 employees in 16 countries lost their jobs.
The company’s failure rippled across the tourism industry, particularly around the Mediterranean. Travelers were uncertain how they would get home, hotels were worried they wouldn’t get paid, guests were afraid they wouldn’t be allowed to check out without settling their bills, and resorts were hit with cancellations.
Overall, about 600,000 people were traveling with Thomas Cook as of Sunday, though it was unclear how many would be left stranded, as some regional subsidiaries were in talks with local authorities to continue operating.
The British government swung into action, lining up flights to bring an estimated 150,000 Britain-based customers back home from vacation spots around the globe. It might have been the biggest repatriation effort in the country’s history outside of wartime.
Some 50,000 Thomas Cook travelers were reported stranded in Greece; up to 30,000 in Spain’s Canary Islands; 21,000 in Turkey; and 15,000 in Cyprus.
James Egerton-Stanbridge and his wife, Kim, were set to fly from London’s Gatwick Airport to Egypt to celebrate her 60th birthday when flights were grounded.
“Kim was crying this morning. We’re devastated,” he said.
Other took the news in stride. Sweden’s Bengt Olsson, who was traveling in Cyprus, said there were worse places to be stranded: “It’s nice to stay here. It’s warm.”
The reality was far harsher for the Thomas Cook employees who lost their jobs overnight.
“The staff have been stabbed in the back without a second’s thought,” said Brian Strutton, head of the British Airline Pilots’ Association.
An estimated 1 million customers also found their bookings for coming trips canceled. Many of them are likely to receive refunds under travel insurance plans but had no idea when that would happen. Thomas Cook said it served 22 million customers a year.
The company, which began in 1841, has been struggling for years because of competition from budget airlines and low-cost online booking sites.
Thomas Cook had high fixed costs: It operated a fleet of 105 jets and owned about 550 travel agencies on major streets across Britain as well as 200 hotels in sun-drenched countries.
Business was also hurt in recent years by terrorism attacks in the Middle East and heat waves in Northern Europe that led people to stay home.
Things got worse this year, with the company blaming a slowdown in bookings on uncertainty over Britain’s impending departure from the European Union.