Thomas Cook's chief airline officer Christoph Debus is hopeful that the pan-European leisure group can find an alternative to being broken up if post-Brexit operational continuity requires changes to its status as a majority UK-owned company.
Speaking to FlightGlobal on 26 February, Debus noted that, up to now, Thomas Cook's airlines had been able to operate with multiple air operator certificates (AOCs) spread across European jurisdictions, thanks to trust structures that ensured UK investors were considered EU shareholders by relevant regulators.
But if Brexit leads to UK being defined as a third-party country, the views of those authorities "might change", he acknowledges. Thomas Cook holds AOCs in the UK, Spain and Scandinavia – plus two in Germany.
"The Thomas Cook group has lasted for 176 years. I do not think it would immediately lead to the break-up of the Thomas Cook group or the group airlines," he says. "Of course, you would consider first if there were alternative ways of dealing with it."
At present, only 34% of Thomas Cook Group shares are held by non-European investors, but Debus says "we would expect this to rise above 50%" if the UK became defined as a third-party country.
Debus says he is "hopeful" a solution can be found, and suggests that Thomas Cook might need to find "different legal structure in order to be able to operate our airlines going forward".
The UK-based tour operator is including a "Brexit clause" in the terms and conditions of tickets sold for flights after March 2019 – when the UK is scheduled to leave the EU – in order to allow it to "step back from this contract", says Debus.
"The EU and the UK government don't provide us clarity on which basis we can sell our tickets. Of course we will have a [Brexit] clause too."
Debus says the present lack of "clarity" around Brexit "doesn't encourage us to do big investments and more growth in the UK, at least to the EU".
The possibility of a transitional period following Brexit could provide time for some issues to be resolved, but Debus points out that "so far I've not seen that [agreement] in writing".