Christi and Bobby Shepherd: Thomas Cook's silence is undignified and hurtful

The man who pays his way

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The Independent Travel

Here's what Thomas Cook says about itself: "Our timeless spirit of innovation started in 1841, and we have been giving customers what they want, from a partner they trust."

I agree. Thomas Cook is a great organisation that has been a credit to the nation since the founder's first excursion from Leicester to Loughborough 174 years ago. The firm's excellent staff work in travel agencies across the UK, aboard a first-rate airline that is spreading its wings across America, and for a tour operation that delivers good-value family holidays while upholding high standards of health and safety.

But here's what Leslie Thomas QC says: "Thomas Cook should hang its head in shame."

The barrister was speaking outside Wakefield Coroner's Court after the damning conclusion of the inquest into the deaths of two young children, Christi and Bobby Shepherd. They died in their sleep from carbon-monoxide poisoning while on a Thomas Cook package holiday to the Greek island of Corfu in 2006. Mr Thomas, who was acting for their parents, added: "The families of Christi and Bobby have waited nearly nine years for an apology – they are still waiting."

The facts of the tragedy are well known. The seven- and six-year-old were on holiday at the Louis Corcyra Beach Hotel with their father, Neil Shepherd, and his partner (now wife), Ruth Beatson. They were staying in a bungalow that had an outbuilding attached. Inside this was a hot-water boiler that had been so poorly installed and maintained that it was an accident waiting to happen. Three members of the hotel staff, including the manager, were found guilty of manslaughter by a Greek court. Two Thomas Cook reps were cleared. West Yorkshire Police investigated the case and passed their findings to the Crown Prosecution Service, which decided there was insufficient evidence to press charges against anyone in the company.

The inquest jurors returned a verdict of unlawful killing. They said Thomas Cook had "breached its duty of care". The coroner, David Hinchcliff, told the parents:

"You have my eternal sorrow. I don't think any one of us can begin to imagine the sorrow and grief you have gone through."

At this point you might expect the Thomas Cook boss to appear in front of the cameras, and to say to the families: "We are deeply sorry that this tragedy occurred on a holiday we organised."

But instead the company issued a pre-prepared statement that stopped well short of regret, and seemed to concern itself with explaining why Thomas Cook was not to blame.

Bizarrely, while you can book a holiday to Corfu on thomascook.com, you cannot read the statement on the firm's website. Instead it was posted on its Facebook page, adjacent to a picture of a Mediterranean beach and a caption reading: "If only this was our morning view…"

Dave Tingle was one of the first to respond: "I wish that two children from Wakefield could see that view. Be ashamed." Jan Linley added: "Shame on you Thomas Cook, your staff, your resort, Sorry is not that difficult to say!"

Trust in holiday firms

Thomas Cook missed the opportunity to rebuild trust by expressing its sorrow to the parents and explaining its conscientious attitude to safety. So let me say what Thomas Cook should have said.

British tour operators are obliged to monitor every aspect of safety on the holidays that they organise. The checks cover everything from the temperature of the fridges in the kitchen to the maintenance records of the coaches transferring holidaymakers from the airport to the resort. These assessments are taken very seriously, one reason a risk-averse parent should seek out a properly regulated package holiday rather than the cheapest "DIY" deal on the internet.

The tragedy in Corfu was an isolated incident. At its root was the unforgivable decision by the hotel to tolerate what the coroner called "bodged and botched" work on a water heater. Thomas Cook's inspection failed to identify the risk. But new precautions mean a repeat is highly unlikely.

Brand loyalty

On the same day that Thomas Cook found "sorry" so hard to say, its giant rival announced a re-brand. Thomson, which has dominated the package-holiday market for half a century, is to be erased in favour of a three-letter German acronym: Tui, short for the catchy Touristik Union International, the holding company. A bit of a mouthful? Well, at least it's catchier than the holiday firm's previous Teutonic title: Preussag, short for Preussische Bergwerks-und Hütten-Aktiengesellschaft, which translates as the Prussian Mine and Foundry Company.

Thomas Cook was the last big tour operator to try a re-brand. The firm describes itself as "the oldest and best-known name in leisure travel". But at the start of the 21st century, Thomas Cook decided to conceal its heritage and rebrand its charter airline and package holidays as JMC.

Within two years the company made a U-turn, and began to un-re-brand. The failed venture cost it about £20m, plus an unquantifiable amount in reputational damage – something Thomas Cook is experiencing once again.

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