Thomas Cook’s collapse will hit small, regional airports hardest

Plane Talk: There are serious implications for air links from the UK, and the nations dependent on them

Simon Calder
Travel Correspondent
Friday 27 September 2019 18:52 BST
Cardiff Airport is the 20th busiest in the UK
Cardiff Airport is the 20th busiest in the UK (Getty)

In the early hours of Monday morning at Manchester airport, a sequence of planes belonging to Thomas Cook Airlines landed. But each Airbus did not pull up at a gate at Terminal 1; instead they were directed to a remote corner of the airfield, where stairs and buses were summoned. As the passengers and crew stepped down from the plane, officials from the airport were attaching a Notice of Detention for non-payment of airport fees.

After an illustrious 178-year history, it was a tragic and ignominious end for a revolutionary company with excellent staff. And the effects of Thomas Cook’s failure will ripple though the aviation world. The collapse of the iconic travel brand has serious implications for air links from the UK, and the nations dependent on them.

Some British airports were particularly dependent on Thomas Cook. The reason I travelled to Manchester on Sunday night was because, as Thomas Cook Airlines’ biggest base, it was the best place to cover the story. One in 10 of the airport’s summer flights was on the sadly defunct airline.

Already Virgin Atlantic has announced extra flights from Manchester to Barbados, New York and Orlando, to make up for Thomas Cook’s sad demise.

But smaller airports may not be so fortunate in rebuilding routes. Newcastle, East Midlands and Cardiff are especially exposed.One in nine flights at the Welsh capital’s airport was operated by Thomas Cook this summer. That is a challenging proportion to replace, especially as much bigger airports – including Gatwick, Birmingham and Glasgow – will be soliciting surviving airlines to re-launch services next summer.

Every overseas destination is a loser, but some will fare particularly badly: those where the company has the majority of flights, or in some cases the only departures.

The worst effects of Thomas Cook’s collapse will be felt in Tunisia. Four years ago, terrorists murdered tourists in two vile attacks: one in the Bardo Museum in Tunis, the other on the beach in the resort of Sousse. Many Tunisians lost their livelihoods as UK tour operators pulled out. But Thomas Cook was first to return early in 2018, and had built up a large holiday programme.

The company was the only UK operator to the holiday airport at Enfidha, with 20 flights a week from nine British airports that should be taking 4,000 holidaymakers a week to North Africa. Furthermore Thomas Cook was planning a busy winter season in Tunisia, which has now been wiped out. And at short notice there’s almost no prospect of replacement flights, thanks to a worldwide shortage of short-haul planes, as a result of the grounding of the Boeing 737 Max.

Thomas Cook was also the leading airline to two big holiday airports in southern Turkey, Antalya and Dalaman. On Wednesday alone, for example, there were due to be 13 Thomas Cook flights from nine UK airports to Dalaman – that’s 2,500 people who didn’t touch down, check into hotels, take taxis, dine out or go on excursions.

Cuba is another casualty: during the summer season the only flights from the UK to the Cuban holiday airports of Cayo Coco, Holguin and Varadero were on Thomas Cook Airlines from Manchester and Gatwick.

If the Monarch Airlines collapse almost two years ago is a guide, many routes will be picked up. But I fear for some of the “niche” destinations such as Kavala in northern Greece. There are flights from five UK airports, but all of them on Thomas Cook.

While easyJet, Ryanair and Jet 2 will be looking to take up many of the abandoned routes, I imagine that a link from Bristol or East Midlands to the small airport serving the beautiful island of Thassos is not top of their wish list. I hope I am wrong.

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