Special report: A failure waiting to happen

Special report: A failure waiting to happen

Monarch was never likely to escape the squeeze applied by Ryanair and easyJet. Ian Taylor charts the airline’s demise

Monarch has fallen into repeated difficulty over recent years as it struggled to compete with easyJet and Ryanair.

Long-standing owners the Mantegazza family decided to sell the group in July 2014 after refusing to finance a fresh bail-out. But they first persuaded Andrew Swaffield, who had recently joined the airline, to take over as chief executive to attempt a turnaround and to try to find a buyer.

Swaffield led a restructure that slashed more than 700 jobs and won union agreement to pay cuts of up to 30%. It ended with a takeover by London-based venture capital firm Greybull Capital in October 2014.

As a condition of renewing Monarch’s Atol under the new owners, the CAA insisted on extending the airline’s Atol protection to its seat-only sales.

Monarch ceased charter and long-haul flying and appeared to have turned a corner. But by late 2015 it was back in trouble. When the carrier’s Atol licence fell due for renewal in September last year, the CAA imposed financial conditions which Greybull appeared reluctant to meet.

The CAA delayed the license renewal and made plans to repatriate Monarch passengers in the event of the carrier failing.

It subsequently emerged, in the accounts of the Air Travel Trust fund which underwrites the Atol scheme, that the measures put in place to carry out this repatriation cost £25 million.

At the eleventh hour, Greybull announced a £165 million investment, guaranteeing Monarch’s immediate and, it appeared, long-term future.

The CAA renewed the airline’s Atol and Swaffield, an Abta board member, appeared in triumph at Abta’s 2016 Travel Convention in Abu Dhabi.

He told the Convention: “I wanted to express thanks to the trade for supporting us. The investment from Greybull is built around our six-year business plan and takes us to the end of that.” He insisted: “The investment is from now, not spread over the six years.”

The cash injection allowed Monarch to order a new fleet of fuel-efficient Boeing 737 MAX aircraft.

Swaffield told Travel Weekly: “The aircraft order will bring significant savings. We spend £120 million a year on fuel. The fleet order will be transformative for us.”

The first of the aircraft was due to be delivered next March.

In line with the new arrangements, the CAA dropped its requirement that Monarch provide Atol cover for seat-only sales, reducing the group’s Atol capacity to about 244,000 for the 12 months to this September, when Monarch carries about six million passengers a year.

Yet the pressure on Monarch continued to mount as overcapacity across Europe and especially in the western Mediterranean squeezed prices and led even hugely profitable rivals such as easyJet to report falling margins.

Just two months ago, Swaffield was forced to respond to fresh reports of Monarch’s impending demise.

However, he rejected suggestions the airline was in trouble after group accounts for the year to October 2016 showed pre-tax losses of £291 million.

He blamed the losses on a write-off of costs for the remaining three years of the carrier’s lease arrangements for its existing fleet, explaining: “We pulled all the costs into one set of accounts.”

That suggested Greybull might be keen to find a buyer, and Swaffield confirmed that consultancy KPMG had been brought in to review the group’s entire operation and strategy.

Subsequent reports suggested the airline could exit the short-haul market and move back to long-haul flying – a nonsense given the aircraft Monarch operates.

It could be the involvement of KPMG that led in the past week to reports that Monarch has been the subject of bids by easyJet and Wizz Air.

But the carrier’s end will have been determined by decisions taken by Greybull and the CAA.

Monarch: 50 years in flight

1967 – Monarch founded as part of Swiss-based Globus by the Mantegazza family, who own Cosmos Tours in the UK
1968 – April: inaugural charter flight from Luton to Madrid turboprop
1969 – Monarch carries 250,000 passengers with fleet of six Britannia turboprop aircraft
1971 – Carrier acquires first Boeing jets
1972 – Monarch carries 500,000 passengers. By 1976 it has an all jet fleet
1980 – First new Boeing 737 joins Monarch fleet
1981 – Monarch launches flights from Gatwick, Manchester and Glasgow; carries one million passengers
1985 – Airline acquires scheduled operating licences
1988 – Monarch carries two million passengers
1990 – Carrier operates first long-haul aircraft
2002 – Monarch Scheduled operation established
2003 – Monarch Scheduled opens base at Gatwick
2004 – Airline follows low-cost model by charging for food and drink on board
2006 – Monarch places order for six Boeing 787 Dreamliners
2009 – Group reveals £32 million loss; Mantegazza family injects £45 million; Monarch revamps as schedule carrier, operating just 20% of flights as charter
2011 – Annual loss of £45 million; airline cancels Dreamliner order; owners provide £75 million
2012 – Monarch opens base at East Midlands after IAG buys BMI and Bmibaby ceases flying
2013 – Airline announces return to profit
2014 – Mantegazza family decline to put in more money; chairman Iain Rawlinson leaves, Andrew Swaffield takes over as chief executive; staff accept 700 job losses and pay cuts; fleet reduced; Greybull capital acquires Monarch for nominal sum
2015 – Monarch ceases charter and long-haul flying; Swaffield reports turnaround, but short-haul competition intensifies and Sharm el-Sheikh closed to UK flights; Monarch relinquishes Cosmos name
2016 – October: carrier only avoids administration after Greybull pledges £165 million investment
2017 – October: Monarch goes into administration

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