Sentimentality has little place in the harsh realm of modern business. There might be an inescapable sense of injustice surrounding the Thomas Cook affair, a feeling that a company approaching its third century of trading deserved a break.

But in the same way that being cute and fluffy in the animal kingdom is little protection against the laws of nature, and the jaws of hungry predators, a long and prestigious heritage is no defence against an inability to adapt and survive.

Much of the outcry over the UK government’s reluctance to step in and save Thomas Cook – whose founding was closer in time to the Montgolfier brothers’ pioneering balloon flight than the Wrights’ first aeroplane – has been fuelled by compassion for the plight of those caught in the domino-chain maelstrom of its collapse, rather than cool-headed analysis of the probability of success.

Thomas Cook jets - Rui Vieira/AP/Shutterstock

Rui Vieira/AP/Shutterstock

Because Thomas Cook is not the blameless victim of a one-off shock beyond its control. Its underlying profitability repeatedly failed to translate into anything other than the White Queen’s promises of “jam tomorrow” as it spent the proceeds on trying to keep debts under control and restructuring its poorly-performing business model.

The company’s accounts, with its paper-thin margins and hefty reliance on intangible assets, were precarious and lent weight to the government’s argument that propping it up with taxpayers’ money would have ultimately proven futile.

Thomas Cook, as a result, joins a list of companies – like Pan Am, Sabena and Mexicana – whose longevity and brand familiarity offered insufficient strength to counter a shaky economic foundation.

When Monarch Airlines collapsed two years ago, the sweeping mobilisation of other carriers’ aircraft illustrated the difficulties associated with keeping a company’s own fleet operating in order to repatriate staff and passengers.

That a subsequent review into the fallout of airline insolvency, which recommended revising the UK’s approach, emerged as Thomas Cook’s empire was beginning to crumble was an unfortunate coincidence. But one which seems to have compelled the government to take the matter more seriously than it otherwise might.

Over the span of 178 years Thomas Cook built a reputation for simplifying and smoothing the transport of customers to destinations worldwide for the purpose of rest and relaxation. But its legacy could lie in fundamental changes which would lessen the stress and anxiety involved in returning home, for both the customers and hard-working personnel of airlines that find themselves, whether self-inflicted or not, in the deepest distress.

Source: Flight International