Thomas Cook: Guests trapped in Tunisian hotel talked of storming gates to escape

Paul and Gail Dunn, who live in Cullybackey, were caught up in a stand-off in their Tunisian Hotel and are keen to get back home.
Paul and Gail Dunn, who live in Cullybackey, were caught up in a stand-off in their Tunisian Hotel and are keen to get back home.

A Ballymena pastor on holiday in Tunisia with Thomas Cook says he just wants to fly home – after a group of 200 tourists threatened to break out of his hotel.

The UK’s largest peacetime repatriation has been launched after the travel giant collapsed.

British passengers wait for news on cancelled Thomas Cook flights at Palma de Mallorca airport on Monday Sept. 23, 2019. (AP Photo/Francisco Ubilla)

British passengers wait for news on cancelled Thomas Cook flights at Palma de Mallorca airport on Monday Sept. 23, 2019. (AP Photo/Francisco Ubilla)

An estimated 150,000 tourists are being brought home by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) in a flight programme costing £100 million.

Thomas Cook ceased trading in the early hours of yesterday morning after failing to secure a last-ditch rescue deal.

Holidaymakers already abroad will be flown home as close as possible to their original return time and date.

All future Thomas Cook bookings have been cancelled, affecting around one million people.

Ivan and Anne Cobb from Dromore, Co Down believe they got the last Thomas Cook flight from Belfast on Sunday night and are now waiting to find out what replacement flight they will be getting home.

Ivan and Anne Cobb from Dromore, Co Down believe they got the last Thomas Cook flight from Belfast on Sunday night and are now waiting to find out what replacement flight they will be getting home.

Paul Dunn, associate pastor at Ballymena Elim Church, is on holiday with his wife, Gail, at the Les Orangers beach resort in the town of Hammamet in Tunisia.

“It has been hectic since Saturday,” he told the News Letter.

They came down into the reception area of the hotel after 9.30pm to find crowds of anxious people.

“I overhead one guy said ‘this is ridiculous’. I went over and asked him what had happened, and he said the manager had stopped anyone who had come in on Manchester flights from leaving the hotel.”

Mr Dunn had been given to understand that it was normal for holiday operators such as Thomas Cook to settle their hotel bills at the end of the season, but the manager was demanding that Thomas Cook pay all outstanding bills immediately as he was concerned it was about to go bust.

“The hotel put four security guards on the gates and told guests they could not leave until Thomas Cook paid up. But the thing was, this is an all-inclusive hotel, and some of the guests had been drinking from 10.30am.

“Some guys were really tanked up and the crowd of almost 200 people became almost mob-like. One guy said: ’Well there are 200 of us and only four guards. We can rush the gates’.

“I just thought to myself – ‘I can’t believe it ... I have just left 50 years of this behind at home’.”

The situation was recued when the local Thomas Cook holiday rep came in to mediate.

“Only for him ... he tried to calm everything down. Then at that point they cut the hotel wi-fi off. So there was no way we could contact anyone outside. People started to get angry.”

At that point Thomas Cook paid the bill for the Manchester group and the hotel wi-fi was restored.

“So the guests immediately went on to social media and told everyone what had happened. It just goes to show you the power of social media, because shortly after that the Tunisian Ministry of Tourism called the hotel manager and told him to back off. So in hindsight he was very embarrassed. On Sunday the staff could not do enough for us.

“The Thomas Cook rep, who at this point considered himself out of a job, came in to help all the holiday makers find their flights home via the UK Civil Aviation Authority.

“We should be able to fly home on Wednesday as we planned but the problem is you don’t know what UK airport you will arrive into or when.”

The other problem is that his wife must take medication regularly or she starts to suffer significantly and they don’t have any extra if their return home is delayed.

“It is quite worrying. At this stage we just want to get on to a flight and get back home,” he added.

Richard Moriarty, the chief executive of the CAA, said the government had asked his organisation to launch “the UK’s largest ever peacetime repatriation” which will involve flights from 53 airports in 18 countries.

Around 40 aircraft from as far away as Malaysia have been chartered to operate approximately 1,000 flights over the next two weeks.

Most of the flights will be from European airports, but customers will also be brought home from Thomas Cook’s long-haul destinations such as those in the US, the Caribbean and Cuba.

The majority of the £100 million cost of the programme will be met from funds held by the ATOL scheme, with the government also making a contribution.

ATOL provides protection to customers on package holidays when travel firms collapse, although passengers who made flight-only bookings with Thomas Cook are also being brought home at no extra charge.

Thomas Cook package holiday customers will have accommodation covered by ATOL.

Meanwhile, a Dromore businessman believes he caught the last Thomas Cook flight out of Belfast on Sunday night – and is now waiting patiently in Turkey to find out details of the replacement flight which will bring him home.

Ivan Cobb says he and his wife Anne “literally landed in the middle of it on Sunday night”.

He added: “I think we caught the last Thomas Cook flight out of Belfast.”

They booked a week in Antalya in Turkey about three weeks ago. “Then about Thursday I started to hear the news that Thomas Cook was in difficulty,” he said.

“We panicked a wee bit initially, but we didn’t worry, we just got to the airport and everything was fine.

“Thankfully we only booked our flights from Thomas Cook, our hotel and everything else was booked through a different travel agent.

“But nobody from Thomas Cook has phoned us and nobody from our travel agents has phoned us to tell us what is happening and how we are getting home.”

He is reasonably relaxed as the Civil Aviation Authority website has already posted replacement flights from Antalya to the UK up until Wednesday. By Thursday or Friday he hopes details of his return flight will also be published for Sunday, when he is due to fly home. “I’m quite confident but dear help anyone that might panic a bit.”

Retail NI chief executive Glyn Roberts said his thoughts are with stranded holidaymakers and the impact on the NI high street, after the collapse of holiday giant Thomas Cook.

“Our thoughts are with the stranded holidaymakers and the staff of Thomas Cook,” he said. “However, we should not underestimate the impact that the loss of their 20 travel agencies in Northern Ireland will have on local high streets and town centres.

“The loss of any business on the high street always has a impact on surrounding traders as a result of less footfall.”

Thomas Cook suffered a perfect storm of factors. It was unable to secure the extra £200 million needed to keep the business afloat following a full day of crucial talks with its major shareholder and creditors on Sunday.

Rival travel companies did not have the costs of high street offices, or own brand hotels or an airline to manage. It also suffered greatly in 2010 during the Arab Spring uprisings.

The pound falling against the dollar and the euro also hit the business, especially since it paid hotels in euros and bought fuel for its planes in dollars. And the 2018 UK heatwave also caused the last-minute weekend getaway market to collapse.

The group employed 21,000 people in 16 countries, with 105 aircraft and 200 own-brand hotels and resorts. It was formed in 1841 by a former Baptist preacher who took 500 temperance movement members on a day trip by train.

NI travel firm Clubworld has reached out to offer former Thomas Cook staff jobs. General Manager Claire Mulligan said Clubworld has a number of vacancies in all of their seven stores throughout NI and two managerial positions also.

The Consumer Council has advised passengers affected by Thomas Cook’s liquidation to check with the Civil Aviation Authority’s website www.thomascook.caa.co.uk for up to date advice.

The council advises that if you are due to depart with Thomas Cook Airlines, do not travel to your UK airport as the flight will not be operating.

ATOL protected passengers with future bookings should be able to make a claim for a refund via the ATOL scheme. The CAA will publish details on how to claim a refund within the next week. If your flight is not ATOL protected, you will need to apply to your travel insurance company or credit/debit card provider to seek a refund.

Tourists can contact the CAAs 24-hour helpline on 0300 303 2800 in the UK or +44 1753 330 330 from abroad.