LONDON—The unexpected closure of British travel business Thomas Cook Group, which operated an airline and tour group, brought disarray to airports from England to Mallorca. But at London’s Gatwick Airport, the craziness had largely died down by Tuesday afternoon.
Arrivals was busy—but with newly arrived passengers heading to the taxi stand or Gatwick Express train station, not with stranded passengers. As Gatwick traveler Sally Robinson, who had flown in on a British Airways flight that day, says: “It’s just usual stuff that you get when you fly around.”
Signs of Thomas Cook had been mostly scrubbed from its former check-in area, which was deserted on Tuesday afternoon, without a passenger or employee in sight. Above the counters, there used to be branded posters for Thomas Cook. Already, they’ve been ripped off the airport’s walls, with marks of the glue that used to hold them there still visible.
On the digital signs below, a Department of Transport notice tells Thomas Cook passengers that the company has “ceased trading” and recommends they visit a “dedicated website” for more information and advice on how to proceed.
“They’ve been open for so many years, and they couldn’t get the help,” says Gatwick traveler Maureen Bignell, 64, right next to the abandoned Thomas Cook check-in point. “They’ve got all these people stranded.”
To be exact, 150,000 people.
On Sunday the 178-year-old travel company folded, citing bankruptcy, leaving behind a long legacy of an almost antiquated model of travel and leisure.
The brand’s bread and butter was a packaged holiday, a flight and hotel combination at a discount, “off the shelf” and practically preassembled. That doesn’t work in today’s world of online travel agencies.
“They just didn’t move quickly enough,” says Nick Wyatt, the head of travel and tourism at Global Data. Wyatt took a Thomas Cook flight back to Manchester from New York last Friday, two days before the airline folded. “People demand now a greater level of personalization and customization. … Booking.com, Priceline, Expedia, these have all made it much easier for people to be the travel agent themselves. They can put their own holiday together.”
He credits changing consumer behaviors and a failure to adapt to demands as the reason behind Thomas Cook’s collapse—let alone the operational costs associated with a national network of brick-and-mortar stores and its own airline to maintain.
Travel advisers (formerly “travel agents” who have since rebranded) across the pond see the collapse of Thomas Cook not as an indictment of travel advisers but of Thomas Cook and the brand’s inability to personalize their product.
In a statement, the president and CEO of the American Society of Travel Advisors (ASTA), Zane Kerby, says that “the Thomas Cook situation is not indicative of the declining health of the overall travel adviser industry.”
According to a study conducted and released by ASTA, 50% of the organization’s travel advisers feel as though their business is going to be better in 2020, as compared to this year. The U.S. Census Bureau’s record of travel agency employment grew 8% over the last five years.
“We can’t just put all travel advisers in a vacuum,” says Erika Richter, an ASTA spokesperson. “The business model of Thomas Cook is very different than the average adviser who works from home. They had far more inventory than the average travel adviser.”
In fact, it’s the personalization that Thomas Cook couldn’t offer that gives travel advisers their greatest advantage.
“Travel advisers have relationships that could take the average traveler a lifetime to build. They’re able to offer better deals and perks you’d never be able to find online. They specialize in the ‘un-Googleable,'” says Richter.
Customers who were flying on Thomas Cook, however, found themselves with very few advantages—and even options—left. Bignell says that, although she wasn’t traveling on Thomas Cook, she’s already seen the stress that the airline’s sudden bankruptcy had caused. Her sister-in-law was set to fly on the airline in a few days and is scrambling to find another flight in the meantime.
“She’s lucky enough that she used her credit card and she’s also got insurance, but until she can sort all that out she’s got to pay again, so that’s double,” Bignell says.
But despite the anxiety Thomas Cook customers might be feeling, passengers who were flying into Gatwick on Tuesday were not fazed by the stress of the previous day.
Traveler Carlos Doya, 24, says that he had been mentally preparing for a “bit of chaos in the departure” and that he expected things to be less calm at the airport than they appeared to be. Despite this, he says he was “not nervous at all” to fly out the day after Thomas Cook’s closure was announced.
In fact, some weren’t surprised that the atmosphere at Gatwick’s south terminal, Thomas Cook’s former home at the airport, had stayed calm.
“I’m sure there’s a lot of people in countries that have got to get back, and it’s probably quite stressful for them,” says Robinson. “I think it’s happened before, not on such a big scale, but it will sort itself out over the coming days.”
It’s perhaps the reaction you might expect from a country famous for its stiff upper lip.
“I was a little bit concerned, but it was fine,” says Gatwick traveler John Westwood-Hill, 38, who was flying on China Airlines. “This is what we do when things go wrong; we just get on with it.”