The UK’s biggest peacetime repatriation operation is under way to return 110,000 Monarch Airlines customers after the airline collapsed into administration.
Around 860,000 customers are affected by Monarch Airlines going into administration, the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) has said.
This includes 110,000 who are currently abroad and 750,000 with future bookings.
The Luton-based carrier, which was about to mark its 50th anniversary, went into administration early on Monday, triggering uncertainty for customers and a huge effort to get people already on holiday back to the UK.
The CAA said it had been asked by the Government to charter more than 30 aircraft to bring the passengers home, with Transport Secretary Chris Grayling calling it the “biggest peacetime repatriation” effort.
Asked how long the CAA has been planning the operation, chief executive Andrew Haines replied: “We had notification from Monarch four and a half weeks ago that there were issues they were dealing with.
“Unfortunately we didn’t get final confirmation until 4am this morning and my understanding is that the board resolution to go into administration didn’t take place until close to midnight on Saturday night.”
Most Monarch passengers currently abroad are in “classic holiday resorts” in Spain and Portugal such as the Costa del Sol, the Algarve and the Canary Islands, Mr Haines said.
Around 13,000 passenger per day are being flown home.
Flights will match Monarch’s original schedule “as close as possible” although there will be some changes including consolidation of services, Mr Haines said.
“There will undoubtedly be some disruption but we have been able to secure 34 aircraft from 16 different airlines to run a programme,” he told reporters.
“Today we have published the flight schedule and we expect to be able to get everybody back today that was due to return today.
“We certainly expect to do that for the next few days.”
EasyJet and Qatar Airways are among the airlines providing aircraft.
Mr Haines said “the nature of administration” means Monarch’s fleet is not immediately available for use.
The CAA did not approach Ryanair for assistance due to its “well publicised shortage of planes and crews” and due to it not being based in the UK, he added.
A plane carrying 165 passengers from Ibiza was the first to arrive, landing at Gatwick on Monday morning
KPMG partner Blair Nimmo said Monarch, which employs around 2,100 people across its airline and tour group, had struggled with mounting costs and competitive market conditions which saw it suffer a period of sustained losses.
Administrators are now considering breaking up the company as no buyer has been found to purchase Monarch in its entirety, he said.
In a letter to staff, Monarch chief executive Andrew Swaffield said the “root cause” of the airline’s plunging revenues was terror attacks in Egypt and Tunisia, as well as the “decimation” of the tourist trade in Turkey.
But the Unite union, which represents around 1,800 engineers and cabin crew working for Monarch, claimed that ministers rebuffed requests by Monarch to provide a bridging loan, charged at commercial rates, to tide the company over while it restructured the business to focus on its long-haul operations.
National officer Oliver Richardson accused the Government of being “content to sit on its hands and allow one of the UK’s oldest airlines go into administration”.
He added: “Continuing uncertainty surrounding Brexit and the ability of UK airlines to fly freely in Europe after the UK has left the EU undoubtedly hindered Monarch getting the investment it needed to restructure and survive.”
Mr Grayling said Monarch’s problems went back further than the EU referendum as he dismissed suggestions that the post-Brexit vote fall in sterling had contributed to the firm’s troubles.
He told the Press Association: “We knew last year that they had problems; they managed to secure their future with a major cash injection a year ago.
“We know they were struggling because of the price war in the Mediterranean, and because we thought it was prudent to do so, we put in place contingency plans.”
Pressed on whether Brexit’s impact on the pound was a factor, Mr Grayling, a leading supporter of the Leave campaign, said: “I have spoken to the chief executive of Monarch.
“It is not the case ... he actually cited to me the terrorist threats in part of the Mediterranean that have led to a move from the east Mediterranean to the west Mediterranean by many holidaymakers.”
Downing Street said Prime Minister Theresa May was determined to ensure Monarch passengers abroad were brought home, while support was available for the staff affected.
“This is a very distressing situation and we want those affected to know the Government is doing everything possible to bring them home safely and speedily,” a No 10 spokesman said.
“We have assembled in a very short space of time what is effectively one of Britain’s biggest airlines.
“The PM also feels hugely sorry for those people who turned up at airports today hoping to go away or have holidays booked. This a very difficult time for Monarch staff and there is DWP (Department for Work and Pensions) support available.”