James Moore: It's probably good that Thomas Cook didn't go for an emergency landing
James Moore is the Independent's Associate Business Editor and writes the Outlook City comment column from Tuesday to Friday. He also has a keen interest in disability issues and when not attempting to further injure himself playing wheelchair basketball.
Wednesday 11 April 2012
Outlook Here are some figures that ought to scare you a little, if you happen to have taken out a package holiday with Thomas Cook. Last year, despite its well publicised problems, the tour operator's UK arm generated sales of £2.35bn. At the same time, the Air Travel Organisers' Licensing (ATOL) fund to protect those who would otherwise be left high and dry in the event of a holiday company going bust was (at the beginning of 2011) £42m in deficit.
Now it's true that ATOL generates income of just over £40m a year from a levy on each package holiday sold. There is also insurance in place against a really big failure (good for maybe £300m) and an overdraft. Would it be enough in the event of a Thomas Cook going under?
"We're Thomas Cook; we're ATOL protected" was the mantra from the company when it looked to be at risk of entering a death spiral. Just how good that protection is came alarmingly close to being tested last year.
Of course, yesterday Thomas Cook was crowing (quietly). Mercifully, the question might not need answering because the business is no longer cooked. A new financing package is being hammered out that ought to provide some long-term stability to a company which has been attracting the sort of adjectives – troubled, embattled, beleaguered and so on – that tend to frighten consumers who have visions of being stranded at far-off airports.
That ATOL mantra seems to have convinced enough customers to stick with the company to give its executives enough breathing room to convince bankers that a new financing package doesn't necessarily mean throwing good money after bad.
So the sun is, theoretically, peering out from behind the clouds and there'll be bonuses all round in the boardroom if the chief executive, Sam Weihagen, pulls it off – because that's what you get to motivate you for just doing your job in the higher echelons of corporate Britain.
Whether any lessons have been learned remains to be seen.
Egged on by the City, and in pursuit of bonuses of their own, the holiday company's previous management went on a deal spree at the worst possible time while building up a mountain of debt.
That they were allowed to do this stands as yet another indictment of non-executive directors who, it appears, didn't bother to raise questions about whether this was clever. Plus ça change. Today's non-executive director expects to turn up (sometimes) with a rubber stamp, in return for a substantial fee. And a substantial lunch.
It looks as if Thomas Cook has survived and a very nasty situation has been averted. People should be able to fly out on its holidays with a little more confidence (are those fingers crossed again?) than this time last year.
All the same, it is disappointing that questions aren't being asked more loudly about whether Thomas Cook or a similar-sized rival should be allowed to get into such a dangerous situation again. And what measures should be introduced to prevent it from happening.
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