Cook bankruptcy strands thousands

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UPDATED: Tens of thousands of Norwegians are among those stranded or facing financial losses after the parent company of charter tour operator Ving Norge, the UK-based Thomas Cook Group, filed for bankruptcy early Monday. Ving itself is not in bankruptcy but it cancelled all flights to and from the Nordic countries and customers were largely left in the dark.

The bankruptcy of British travel firm Thomas Cook Group grounded all flights by its Thomas Cook Airlines. That has stranded thousands of customers and raised questions for those who have booked trips. PHOTO: Ving Norge

“They could have at least sent us a message,” one frustrated customer, Hanne Nyrem Karlsen, told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK). She was supposed to travel with Ving early Monday morning to Greece, and had even checked in and received her baggage tags at OSL Gardermoen when she was met with a sign at baggage drop that there was a problem. A man at the counter claimed he didn’t know anything more, apart from the fact that the Ving flight would not be taking off.

“So I just went home,” Karlsen told NRK. She said there was no information from Ving either on their app or on Facebook: “We were the only departure Ving should have had today, so it shouldn’t have been so difficult to send us a mail or a text message.”

Media outlets were also frustrated by the lack of information, and a press conference scheduled for noon was postponed. Siri Røhr-Staff, information chief for Ving, told NRK that staff in Norway were sitting in crisis meetings Monday morning “and that we must prioritize getting information out to our customers first.”

Around 100,000 Norwegians affected
News bureau NTB reported that as many as 85,000 Norwegians alone have booked and even paid for holidays over the next 12 months through charter tour operator Ving. Nearly 9,000 are currently out traveling on Ving-arranged holidays and they appear to be stranded, at least temporarily. It remained highly unclear how or when they’d be able to travel home. Several news bureaus reported that more than 20,000 people working in the Thomas Cook group will likely lose their jobs.

Meanwhile, details remained sketchy and questionable. Passengers who did finally get a message to contact Ving via email on Monday didn’t receive replies. One family due to fly back to Norway from Mallorca on Tuesday had no idea whether they’d be back at work and school on Wednesday, since all flights on Thomas Cook Airlines Scandinavia that Ving uses were cancelled.

Ving issued a statement mid-morning from management of Vinggruppen, the Nordic operations of Thomas Cook that include Ving, Spies, Tjäreborg and Globetrotter. It confirmed that all Vinggruppen flights on Monday were “interrupted” but that “we are working intensely so that all affected customers will get home with as few delays as possible. We apologize in the strongest of terms that (Cook’s bankruptcy) is affecting our customers.”

Mixed signals
Ving claimed that its package tours using British Airways, Norwegian Air, Thai Airways or other carriers would not be affected. SAS, however, told NRK that 90 Ving customer due to travel on a chartered SAS flight from Trondheim to Cyprus Monday would not be taken on board. “The flight will leave with TUI (another charter operator’s) passengers on board, and will return with both Ving and TUI passengers home,” an SAS spokesman told NRK. Norwegian also seemed reluctant to carry Ving passengers, telling passengers that they needed to contact Ving first.

In the cases where flights were cancelled with no alternative transport, Ving claimed that customers will be reimbursed in accordance with Norwegian law.

The company was scrambling to get more information out to customers. The statement published Monday mid-morning (external link to Ving’s website) seemed to be available only in Norwegian, with no link to an English version immediately available. In a press release Monday morning, Ving seemed to stress that the immediate trouble was largely a result of the Thomas Cook Airlines grounding, which prevented 249 passengers from leaving Norway on Monday and 208 from coming home. For Vinggruppen as a whole, 3,146 passengers were prevented from leaving on holiday, 3,375 passengers  were prevented from coming home.

A total of 8,685 Norwegian passengers are currently at Ving destinations, part of 34,360 passengers from the Nordic countries as a whole. That’s what can further complicate return flights, especially if other carriers won’t honour tickets issued through Vinggruppen companies.

Nordic operations not in bankruptcy
Ving Norge has not filed for bankruptcy itself and may try to keep operating by using other carriers. Thomas Cook’s bankruptcy followed the breakdown of recapitalization and debt negotiations with creditors in the UK, prompting Thomas Cook’s management to shut down all operations with immediate effect. As many as 21,000 Thomas Cook employees are expected to lose their jobs.

NRK noted that Ving Norge, as a wholly owned subsidiary of Thomas Cook, may be sold to other investors and be able to continue operating. Ving Norge officials admitted they didn’t have “all the answers about how Thomas Cook Group’s bankruptcy will affect us” in the long term.

Magnus Vikner, chief executive of Vinggruppen in the Nordic countries, defended the lack of information Monday morning, claiming that the company had to “wait until the last second” to see whether there was any possibility “to get out flights in the air.” He said company officials ultimately “had to see that it wasn’t possible. We really apologize for the situation that has arisen.”

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund