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Shares in Thomas Cook plunge


Shares in holidays giant Thomas Cook plunged today after it admitted dire trading had forced it back to its banks for more financial help.

The group said plummeting consumer confidence and the unresolved turmoil in north Africa - a popular destination with holidaymakers from its key markets in France and Russia - had hit the business harder than expected.

Thomas Cook insisted it was in robust shape but the surprise update spooked investors, causing shares in the FTSE 250 Index company to slump 70% at one stage. It now has a market value of just £120 million after today's statement and a series of profit warnings left shares 93% lower on the start of the year.

Just four weeks after it agreed an additional £100 million in funding headroom to help it cope with the quietest point of its trading year, the tour operator has gone back to its banks to ask for a similar top up.

The group - which postponed Thursday's publication of its full-year results until after talks with its lenders have concluded - said the move was prudent ahead of December and January, the toughest time of year for the business.

Sam Weihagen, Thomas Cook interim chief executive, insisted the company was a "robust business that has a great future".

"We're operating business as usual," he said. "Flights are leaving on schedule, shops are open and we're taking bookings."

But the City was less convinced as shares plunged and some analysts urged investors to sell their holdings.

Wyn Ellis, analyst at Numis Securities, said turning the business around would be tough as holiday suppliers are likely to be more wary of committing their products to the company.

He said: "The announcement will be of concern to shareholders, customers and suppliers. Thomas Cook faces a difficult near-term future which could lead to significant loss of market share."

Thomas Cook said its French and Belgium markets have seen bookings fall by up to 20% in recent trading, while its recent move into the Russian market had "got off to an extremely slow start".

The group has suffered from the impact of the Arab spring, which has hit bookings to Tunisia and Egypt, destinations popular with France and Russia respectively, as well as UK holidaymakers.

The violence and turmoil in Egypt has shown no signs of desisting as thousands of activists continue to occupy Tahrir Square in Cairo in protest at the slow pace of political change.

Russian bookings to Thailand have also been knocked by recent severe flooding in the capital Bangkok.

Thomas Cook is expected to report a 31% slide in underlying profits to £191.1 million following a year which saw numerous profits warnings and the exit of its chief executive, Manny Fontenla-Novoa.

The dismal year prompted the holiday group, which at the end of last year had 31,000 staff, to axe its dividend as it moves to repair its battered finances, which include debts of around £900 million.

The group insisted it had not fallen behind with any of its payments and Mr Weihagen said talks with its lenders were an act of "prudence" ahead of the seasonal low point.

Thomas Cook, Europe's second biggest tour operator after TUI Travel, selling more than 22 million holidays a year in the UK, is understood to be considering the closure of 200 of its outlets following its recent merger with the Co-op's UK high street travel businesses.

The tie-up created the UK's largest high street travel agent and second largest foreign exchange group with more than 1,200 shops.

In other moves to turn around the UK business, the group has announced plans to reduce its current fleet of 41 aircraft by six to better meet capacity, while it is also reviewing call centre rostering to improve efficiency.

In addition, the company is looking to raise £200 million from the sale of assets such as hotels and its stake in Britain's air traffic control service.

The announcement hit sentiment towards the wider sector with industry leader and Thomson Holidays owner TUI Travel falling nearly 10%.