The world's oldest travel operator Thomas Cook has collapsed with the loss of more than 21,000 jobs worldwide.
The 178-year-old company was put into compulsory liquidation early this morning after a weekend of frantic talks to save the company.
Its collapse and the cancellation of all its flights has sparked the the launch by the Government and the Civil Aviation Authority of the largest repatriation in peacetime history, which has been codenamed Operation Matterhorn.
In addition numerous support schemes have also been set up to support former employees of Thomas Cook.
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps has announced that the Government and UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) has hired dozens of charter planes to fly some 150,000 customers home free of charge.
All customers currently abroad with Thomas Cook who are booked to return to the UK over the next two weeks will be brought home as close as possible to their booked return date.
The flights will start operating from today.
Hundreds of staff from many Government departments and agencies, including the UK CAA, the Department for Transport, and the Foreign Office, are being deployed in call centres and at airports to help people.
All the details of each flight will be posted on a special website, thomascook.caa.co.uk, as soon as they are available.
Mr Shapps, said: "Thomas Cook’s collapse is very sad news for staff and holidaymakers.
"The Government and UK CAA is working round the clock to help people. Our contingency planning has helped acquire planes from across the world – some from as far away as Malaysia – and we have put hundreds of people in call centres and at airports.
"But the task is enormous, the biggest peacetime repatriation in UK history. So there are bound to be problems and delays. Please try to be understanding with the staff who are trying to assist in what is likely to be a very difficult time for them as well."
Business Secretary Andrea Leadsom said: "“This will be a hugely worrying time for employees of Thomas Cook, as well as their customers. Government will do all it can to support them. I will be setting up a cross-government taskforce to monitor local impacts, will write to insurance companies to ask them to process claims quickly, and stand ready to provide assistance and advice.
“I will also be writing to the Insolvency Service to ask them to prioritise and fast-track their investigation into the circumstances surrounding Thomas Cook going into liquidation.”
The Government and the UK CAA aim to fly people as close as possible to their booked return date – so customers are being strongly advised not to cut short their holiday or go to the airport without checking the website for information about their return journey.
The UK CAA is also contacting hotels accommodating Thomas Cook customers, who have booked as part of a package, to tell them that the cost of their accommodation will also be covered by the Government, through the Air Travel Trust Fund/ATOL cover.
All Thomas Cook customers wherever they are around the world, will be brought back to the UK on special free flights or booked onto another scheduled airline at no extra cost. The dedicated website will provide all the information customers need to access these flights. A small number of passengers may need to book their own flight home and reclaim the costs.
For flights back to the UK, it doesn't matter whether customers are ATOL protected or not, or what their nationality is. Everyone on a Thomas Cook holiday with a return flight to the UK within the two weeks will be brought home.
Under normal circumstances, passengers who are not ATOL protected would be asked to find, and pay for, their own way home. However, given the extent of the disruption the Government is stepping in to assist impacted passengers and get people home.
Customers who haven't already left the UK, should not go to the airport, as there will be no further outbound flights operated by Thomas Cook. The dedicated website will let customers know how to get their money back.
Support schemes to help staff include including a dedicated Government webpage and helpline to advise on rights and protections and the Jobcentre Plus Rapid Response Service.
The Insolvency Service is taking steps to prepare for payment of statutory redundancy to employees (except in Northern Ireland where different rules apply).
The Government also intends to convene a cross-government taskforce to support employees, alongside local stakeholders. The taskforce will consider existing support schemes and will also monitor the impact on local businesses.
The Business Secretary will write to the Insolvency Service to ask them to prioritise and fast-track their investigation into the circumstances surrounding Thomas Cook going into liquidation. The investigation will also consider the conduct of the directors.