International rescue team in Peterborough to help crisis-hit holiday makers
From headline grabbing disasters to disenchantment with the colour of the sea, holidays overseas can and do go wrong.
But located in a well-equipped office in the heart of Thomas Cook’s new headquarters in Lynch Wood, Peterborough, there is a 20-strong crisis team ready to literally pluck the unfortunate traveller out of the danger zone at any time of the day or night.
Emergencies in Gambia, Tunisia and Egypt over the last few years have prompted swift action by staff to ensure thousands of passengers are quickly flown home and out of harm’s way.
Duty Office staff have access to Thomas Cook’s own fleet of 32 aircraft and can also “borrow” other planes when an international scare means they have to get customers home.
Staff will fly out to the heart of the drama to offer fearful travellers reassurance and advice and sometimes even more.
For instance, hundreds of buggies were made available at Gatwick airport by Thomas Cook for passengers with young children who had been forced to leave Egypt without luggage after travel to the Sharm el Sheikh airport was banned by the UK government following a terror attack.
Working in the Duty Office is a highly sought after role at Thomas Cook. Staff cite variety and a desire to be at the heart of contact with the customers as reasons for working in the Duty Office.
Yet the role is a demanding one. The Duty Office is staffed around-the-clock, seven days a week - including Christmas Day.
It receives 500 calls a week during the winter months but that rises to 1,300 a week in the peak summer season.
It is well resourced with access to Thomas Cook’s own airline and a credit card with a £100,000 limit, which ensures vital help can be paid for without a lengthy wait for permission from senior managers.
The Duty Office is run by Thomas Cook’s UK duty officer and customer welfare manager Will Staples (42) who has spent 15 years with the tour operator and has run the office since 2014 when it was transferred to Peterborough and overhauled.
Mr Staples was tasked with recruiting the 19 staff.
He said: “It was a hugely difficult task. There was so much demand - we had 250 applicants.”
Every Thomas Cook holiday maker has the telephone number for the Duty Office in the event of an emergency.
Its staff are committed to the wellbeing of their customers - and in some cases even striking up friendships with the people whose holidays they have rescued.
Mr Staples points out for most of the six million customers holidaying with Thomas Cook, everything goes according to plan.
He said: “Just 0.7 per cent will need to contact the Duty Office for help.”
But this tiny number require help for a range of issues. Illness is the most frequently reported problem. Last year, there were more than 5,000 reports of illness from pre-existing conditions and to varying degrees of seriousness.
Each year there is an average of 65 to 70 natural deaths. In addition, there are 15 to 20 cases of death by misadventure each year. Last year, there were 45 reported cases of sexual assault.
However, not all calls to the Duty Office are so emotionally charged.
Mr Staples said: “Some people complain the sea is not as blue as it appeared in the brochure, or the sand is not as yellow.
“We think the reasons go deeper than the colour of the sea. They probably just don’t like where they are. We look to move them to another hotel.
Mr Staples said: “We treat customers as if they were our own family or friends. All they want is for someone to take all the gnarly stuff away and that’s what we do.”