Department for Transport official justifies government decision to fly home Brits stranded abroad by airline’s collapse in October. Ian Taylor reports

The government ordered the CAA to repatriate all Monarch passengers when the airline failed in October because it feared “chaos” at airports across Europe.

Eirik Pitkethly, deputy director for aviation strategy at the Department for Transport (DfT), justified the repatriation and joined CAA head of Atol Andy Cohen in defending the £250-per-head cost of bringing passengers home.

Pitkethly said: “About 100,000 people were stuck abroad with limited prospect of using existing scheduled capacity to get back. One of the biggest impacts of not doing anything would have been chaos.”

He told a Hill Dickinson travel law seminar: “A big consideration was ‘how do we ensure this doesn’t turn into a riot in 30‑odd airports around Europe and threaten the safety and wellbeing of a lot of people?’ Against that background was the moral hazard: what happens if we undermine the protection system?

“Until the company actually entered administration, the government couldn’t act because to do so might precipitate the failure. Our hands were tied. There was not enough time to get people around the table to discuss it.”

Pitkethly added: “Once it has happened, you have one or two hours to prevent chaos. People start turning up at airports at 5am or 6am in the morning.”

Cohen said the government considered the repatriation “very carefully”. He said: “There was an analysis of the capacity available to UK residents at the time of failure and it wasn’t pretty. It was nowhere near enough to bring people home. That framed the government decision to carry out a full repatriation.”

He added: “When dealing with a mass repatriation, you’re reliant on third-party carriers you have to bring in at short notice. We used North American and Qatari planes. Many came at a premium, plus there were empty legs. That brings up the cost compared to normal rotations. [But] the costs we incurred were not dissimilar to those incurred in 2008 when XL went bust.”

Pitkethly said: “The government only helped people over a two-week period where there was limited capacity to bring them home. I don’t think anyone could have done it cheaper.”

He also challenged the suggestion that a majority of passengers had unprotected flights, arguing: “About 20% were booked with one of the Monarch group companies, so protected by the Atol scheme. About 30% had booked with another Atol-holder. Broadly 50% (and not the same 50%) were also covered by credit cards. So broadly 75% of people had some sort of protection.”

Cohen also insisted the Monarch board placed the airline in administration, not the CAA. He said: “We can be clear. The board of Monarch took the decision they could not continue to trade. They had no reasonable prospect of continuing to trade. They had to close the doors.”

However, Abta director of legal affairs Simon Bunce warned: “We’ll face exactly the same problems again. Surely there should be a plan for this. After XL went bust there was going to be a review of financial protection. It still hasn’t happened. Is it going to happen now? Time goes on. Ministers change, governments change, and we end up years down the line faced with the same issues.”