NEW YORK/LONDON (Reuters) – After the collapse of Thomas Cook left tens of thousands of Britons reliant on the government to bring them home, Prime Minister Boris Johnson questioned whether the travel firm’s bosses should have paid themselves so much ahead of its demise.
Running hotels, resorts and airlines for 19 million people a year, Thomas Cook currently has around 600,000 people abroad and will need the help of governments and insurance firms to bring them back from places as far afield as Cancun, Cuba and Cyprus.
Speaking in New York, Johnson questioned why the state should be left responsible for the actions of handsomely paid directors and said tour operators should have some sort of insurance against such debacles.
“I have questions for one about whether it’s right that the directors, or whoever, the board, should pay themselves large sums when businesses can go down the tubes like that,” Johnson said.
“You need to have some system by which tour operators properly insure themselves against this kind of eventuality.”
Thomas Cook was brought down by a $2.1 billion debt pile, built up by a series of ill-fated deals, that hobbled its response to nimble online rivals. It had to sell three million holidays a year just to cover interest payments.
With the business draining cash, Chief Executive Peter Fankhauser found its lenders were no longer willing to step in. Fankhauser has earned 8.3 million pounds ($10.3 million), including 4.3 million pounds in 2015.
The British government said it was unwilling to “throw good money after bad” to back a bail out of the company.
Reports on Monday said the Turkish government and a group of Spanish hoteliers were willing to support a 200 million pound rescue plan underpinned by a British government guarantee.
Business Secretary Andrea Leadsom, however, said the sum reported would not have kept the operator going for more than a couple of weeks.
“There are all sorts of rumors flying, the fact is that 200 million (pounds) was even an underestimate of what Thomas Cook would have needed just for the very short term, for the next week or two,” she told Sky News.
“Thomas Cook is sitting on trying to service 1.7 billion pounds of debt, and it would have been a waste of taxpayers’ money to be throwing good money after bad.”
Thomas Cook’s demise, announced in the early hours of Monday, sparked alarm at hotels where some customers have been asked to pay their bills again by out-of-pocket resort owners.
“I think the questions we’ve got to ask ourselves now: how can this thing be stopped from happening in the future?” Johnson said.
“How can we make sure that tour operators take proper precautions with their business models where you don’t end up with a situation where the taxpayer, the state, is having to step in and bring people home?”
Emergency flights brought 14,700 people back to the United Kingdom on 64 flights on Monday, and around 135,300 more were expected to be returned over the next 13 days, Britain’s aviation regulator said.
“Just got to get through it,” said Anthony Tents, a Thomas Cook customer from central England trying to return home from Mallorca in Spain. “We’re going to get home but it’s just some of the people have lost their jobs, it’s terrible, isn’t it?.”
Seventy-four flights were scheduled on Tuesday, to bring back 16,500 people. More than 1,000 flights are planned.
“A repatriation of this scale and nature is unprecedented and unfortunately there will be some inconvenience and disruption for customers. We will do everything we can to minimize this as the operation continues,” Richard Moriarty, Chief Executive at Britain’s Civil Aviation Authority, said.
“We want people to continue to enjoy their holiday, so we will bring them back to the UK on their original departure day, or very soon thereafter.”
Writing by Guy Faulconbridge; Editing by Mark Potter