Crisis Management

How the CAA brought Thomas Cook’s stranded passengers home

WHEN the final passenger stepped off the flight from Orlando, Florida onto the tarmac of Manchester Airport on 7 October, it marked the completion of the largest peacetime repatriation plan, bringing more than 140,000 Thomas Cook holidaymakers back to the UK from locations as scattered as Cuba, Jamaica and Turkey.

Operation Matterhorn, as it was dubbed by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), involved 746 flights from 55 destinations to ten UK airports, 150 different aircraft and more than 1,100 coaches across two weeks.

It was a logistics exercise of unprecedented scale, involving every department of the CAA, but at its heart sat the 25-person communications function, supported by colleagues in other government departments, specially recruited temporary staff and even their counterparts at Thomas Cook.

The authority’s offices at London’s Canary Wharf became the hub of Operation Matterhorn, with a television studio installed in one meeting room, two others converted to radio stations with ISDN lines and all staff not directly involved deployed to other offices. New divisions emerged – Silver Command, UK passenger handling, overseas passenger handling, national hub – while huge screens were installed to show where every plane was at any time.

‘We basically ran the UK’s fourth largest airline from this office for two weeks,’ explains communications director Richard Stephenson OBE.

‘And we dealt with all the things that a normal airline would deal with on a day-to-day basis… tech issues, delays, weather.’

But, even as these temporary alterations were taking place and local hotels block booked, there was still the hope that Thomas Cook might not fall into administration. ‘You don’t know what is going to happen until you get notice that the judge in court has signed the paperwork,’ concedes Stephenson.

‘We have to consider every possible scenario or eventuality. And we have to prepare for that, but that’s part of our ongoing contingency planning. Even in the last few days, when the direction of travel was going a certain way, it was not a forgone conclusion. The night it happened, there were still people here, hoping beyond all hope, that what we were gearing up for would not happen.’

But the Civil Aviation Authority also needed to be ready. ‘Decisions had to be made: 24, 48 hours prior to the collapse, we had to position aircraft. If 10,000 people don’t move on that first day, then over a two week period, it is incredibly difficult to catch up,’ says Stephenson.

If you take the UK, for example, if you had 1,000 people turning up to an airport to find there was no plane, you could have civil disobedience issues

‘But at the same time, the plane spotting community is looking at Flightradar24 [the world’s most popular flight tracker] and saying Hang on, that plane doesn’t usually go there. They are very observant – and if they start saying the CAA is positioning aircraft, we can’t run the risk that people put two and two together. We can deal with anything, but we can’t become part of the problem.’

(For legal and insurance purposes, it was not possible to use Thomas Cook planes. Some were leased rather than owned by the company but there was also the risk that planes could be impounded by airports seeking restitution for unpaid bills.)

And the communications team needed to have a multi-national media relations strategy ready to spring into action to ensure that every Thomas Cook holidaymaker or partner was aware of the situation.

‘You are thinking hard about Have we got everything in place? Have we done everything we can? Have we dotted all the Is and crossed all the Ts? Have we thought about all the audiences out there? And, importantly, Have we put ourselves into the shoes of all those who will be impacted?’ says Stephenson. ‘We were talking about one million people directly impacted by this: 21,000 people would lose their jobs, 150,000 people were overseas and 800,000 people had a future booking with the company. It’s huge. It’s the biggest thing I’ve ever dealt with.’

It may have been the biggest, but it is not the first airline administration that Stephenson and his team have overseen. Two years ago, Monarch went into administration – then the biggest airline collapse in UK aviation history – leaving almost 100,000 passengers and holidaymakers overseas.

‘After Monarch, we did a pretty significant ‘lessons learned’ exercise, which was really enlightening and helpful,’ he explains. ‘When Operation Matterhorn was first coined, it wasn’t about anything specific; it was a crisis management exercise about a large ATOL failure. It wasn’t being done with anybody in mind.’ Lessons from Monarch The exercise drew on three key lessons learned during Monarch’s failure: group-wide recognition, the need for confidence and the use of social media.

We put ourselves in their shoes, and developed things like posters, which they could print out and put up, suggested tannoy scripts, draft press releases and a Q&A

‘During Monarch, we communicated a lot across the organisation about what was happening, and we thought we were doing a good job. But what we weren’t doing was recognising, as much as we should have done, the contribution that everybody across the organisation was making,’ says Stephenson.

‘Some people were backfilling the fact that their colleagues were off on this big project. We failed to get the internal comms right. It didn’t matter whether you were working on the project, or on some other part of the organisation: what made the project work was everybody pulling together.

‘This time we made great efforts not to make everything about the project but about how all colleagues across the CAA come together in a situation like this. Everything we said made that point. Everybody’s contribution was just as important. It was a big lesson. Of course, we knew that through Monarch but we didn’t say it. I could have kicked myself: it was a stupid own goal.’

In effect with Monarch, the communications team were creating a plan for an entirely new scenario, so there were some pre-match nerves.

‘I remember standing in the office before the Monarch administration actually happened absolutely tearing my hair out. Are we ready? Can we do this? This is huge. I was looking around at my team, and thinking they had done an amazing job, but where do we go from here?’ Stephenson admits.

‘We had created an airports tool kit, which was basically us, sitting there, thinking If I was the duty press officer at an airport, and I got a call at 2am saying ‘You know that airline that you expected to fly to Majorca, well it’s not going to fly today’, and I’ve got 2,000 people due at the airport… what is going to help me?

‘We put ourselves in their shoes, and developed things like posters, which they could print out and put up, suggested tannoy scripts, draft press releases and a Q&A. We didn’t say You must use this, but we said This might be useful. And they all used it.

‘But there was a confidence issue for us: Are we doing the right thing? When are we going to send this out? Have we got the right people to send it to? It was a jigsaw puzzle coming together. We did a really good job with Monarch but, to be honest, we didn’t realise that until later on.

‘But, of course, if you do something twice, you’re going to do it better and you have more confidence in your decisions. This time was a much bigger operation, but we had the confidence to say If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, so we went to our Monarch files, pulled out the airport tool kits and updated them. Last time, we only sent them to five UK airports. This time, we did an international tool kit too, pulling together all the information we could….

‘You never want to be too confident that you will get everything right, because you won’t, but you need to be confident that you have done everything you can within the timeframe and that you will do the very best you can. And, of course, your team needs to feel that confidence.’ The final lesson related to social media. ‘We took a very focused approach. You know what you need from social media, and what it can deliver for you, and you know how you are going to use and interact with it from the start. It is important not to fall into the trap of trying to use it for other things,’ says Stephenson.

‘During Monarch, when the plane spotter community – which is an incredibly important audience for us – started tweeting Why am I seeing these different planes all over the place? we responded Let us know when you see the next flight, or something like that. It was seen as frivolous. It wasn’t but, in the heat of battle, not all audiences appreciated that we had responded.  So this time, we were completely focused on the operation and bringing back 150,000 people.’

The dark website, that had been dormant since Monarch’s collapse, was brought back to life, rebranded as ‘We had a lot of content ready to go,’ adds Stephenson. ‘Holidaymakers on a beach, hearing about the collapse and worrying What happens now?, could go onto our website, and in three clicks have their new flight details. Our message was really We’re coming to get you. The airplanes are on their way. Enjoy your holiday, and keep checking our website. Everyone was directed to the website.’

You never want to be too confident that you will get everything right, because you won’t, but you need to be confident that you have done everything you can within the timeframe and that you will do the very best you can

In the first 24 hours, a dedicated team at the CAA contacted 3,400 hotels to inform them that, as the holidays were ATOL-protected, they would get paid to ensure that Thomas Cook customers were not turfed out of their rooms. About 40 per cent of holidaymakers were flight only, and therefore not ATOL-protected, but the Government extended the repatriation operation to include them.

‘In the first hours, our media strategy and communications campaign was all about reassurance. If you’re overseas, don’t panic. Keep looking at the website, all the information will be there. The flight schedule for the two weeks might not be up just yet, but it soon will be. And if you’re in the UK and haven’t flown out yet, please don’t go to the airport. Your plane is not operating, you’re not going anywhere. If you’re ATOL-protected, you will get a refund. It was about stopping people panicking,’ says Stephenson.

‘Of course, it was the early hours [when Thomas Cook collapsed] so that, when people woke up, we were everywhere.

‘If you take the UK, for example, if you had 1,000 people turning up to an airport to find there was no plane, you could have civil disobedience issues. We had none of that because we pushed out the messages as soon as we could.’

The first TV channel that the CAA approached was Sky, only to find it doesn’t broadcast live between 2am and 3am, so it turned to the BBC. ‘Our policy director Tim Johnson was on the BBC within a few minutes of the [administration] announcement. We focused very much on the international TV channels, the kind you watch when you’re on holiday, like Sky News International and Al Jazeera.

‘We had Tim [Johnson] and [Dame] Deidre Hutton, our chair, doing interviews. For the first 48 hours, every time you turned onto a news channel there was something going on from the CAA. Our radio stations were operating 24/7 for the first couple of days. The radio side was exclusively UK because, while 150,000 people might have been overseas, their friends and families would be listening back home. So Aunt Maud is lying on a beach, and nephew Johnny rings to say Don’t worry, I’ve just looked at the website.

‘We were conscious that not everybody would have a device to check our website. We hoped they’d have somebody back home they could call, or that they could rely on somebody else in the resort.’ In the event, 94 per cent of Thomas Cook passengers flew back on their original departure dates.

The CAA also issued a daily press release, a tactic deployed during Monarch, first thing every morning. Head of external relations Will Nathan adds: ‘We tried to answer questions before we were even asked them. The press release covered how many people we’d flown home the day before, what aircraft had been used, what the plan for that particular day was. It was also a way of pushing out any messages that were needed over the course of the programme.

‘Whether it was the media, politicians or any of our stakeholders, we tried to equip them as early as possible with both the figures they would need and any information. It was always our figures. It was always our information. If you look at the tweets of the UK airports on the morning that Thomas Cook went into administration, they are basically all the same. They say what we wanted them to say.’

Days one and two have got to be ‘Media, media, media’ – communicate, engage, get the message out there

Nathan also liaised with external stakeholders. ‘There was so much co-ordination as there were many government departments involved, such as the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) on the local task force, meeting people at the airports; the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, with all the support they were providing overseas; the Department of Transport; the Department of Work & Pensions, for dealing with the unions about the unemployment side; the Insolvency Service; and the Home Office, because Border Force was involved.

‘We had twice daily conference calls with all those departments, and then we did the same for the industry – the airlines and the UK airports – which was basically us saying This is what is going on. They were really grateful, because they were getting so many requests from local media for stories. Belfast Airport was desperate for information, because it was a big story over there.’ Nathan also did interviews with many of the regional radio stations.

As with any crisis situation, though, Stephenson admits that there was an element of ‘suck it and see’. ‘The day before, we worked through a potential hour-by-hour plan – if this happens, what will we do and how will we do it – which was really good, because it kept us focused. But when somebody said What will we do on day three?, I had to say We don’t even know what’s going to happen on day two yet!

‘Days one and two have got to be ‘Media, media, media’ – communicate, engage, get the message out there, amplify – any channels we could use, any partner’s channels. It was about reaching as many people as possible and getting them to our website.’

The CAA prepared to repatriate 150,000 Thomas Cook holidaymakers – including 40,000 from Dalaman in Turkey – but actually flew just 142,000. The rest decided to make their own way home. When Monarch collapsed, it prepared for 120,000 people but only 86,000 used the CAA’s services. ‘The delta is very different,’ he observes, ‘I like to think that people saw what we had done before, and trusted us.’

Indeed, on one of the flights she joined, Hutton met a couple who had been abroad with Monarch when it had failed and ‘knew they’d be okay this time too’.

Throughout the programme, there was a ‘collegiate approach’ between the communications teams at CAA and Thomas Cook. ‘We got an awful lot of support from them, they were happy to help and assist in any way they could, for which we were enormously grateful,’ he adds. Several moved into the CAA’s office.

‘I was in complete awe of these guys, who had been through the wringer, and were happy to come and join the team, and get really stuck in. Their knowledge and insight was invaluable.’

Initially, the communications team, bolstered by about 15 temporary staff, worked in rotas of six to ensure 24/7 coverage. Stephenson concludes: ‘We had clarity This is what we need to do, but the other thing was the flexibility. Nothing was too much trouble, but nothing was too little. And it was sustained for three weeks. Afterwards, Deidre said to me If we could just bottle this, and try to keep it going in one way or another, it would be incredibly powerful. Multinationals would want to buy this. Given that we had also brought in outside consultants, who didn’t know one another and hadn’t worked together before, it was quite incredible. It just worked.