Monarch’s rise and fall charts British holiday trends

Monarch, which has just gone into bankruptcy, was part of a travel group whose origins reach back 90 years, long before the days of mass air travel.

Through the heady 1970s and 80s, when foreign package holidays were the height of fashion, to the new era of relentless competition from budget airlines, Monarch still plied the skies.

But by 2017 fierce competition had made the business untenable and on 2 October it ceased operating.

A history of Monarch

In 1928 an enterprising young Swiss Italian, Antonio Mantegazza, spotted a gap in the market.

He realised tourists visiting his idyllic corner of Europe might pay to be ferried across Lake Lugano. So he bought a gondola and launched a tourism business that would eventually become travel giant Globus.

Forty years later in 1968 the Mantegazza family spotted a new way to ferry tourists their way. They decided to back a new airline being founded by British businessmen, Bill Hodgson and Don Peacock, that would bring British holidaymakers to Europe’s beauty spots.

Monarch was launched with just two planes operating from a hangar at Luton Airport, and a new era of package holidays took off.

Bill Hodgson’s daughter, Mary-Anne Hardie, remembers the airline in those days as “one big happy family”. While her father was managing director, her mother designed the first uniforms for cabin crew, in canary yellow. The family tested the in-flight meals at dinner time at home.

By the 1970s package holidays had really taken off. Brits embraced the chance to take an exotic continental break instead of shivering with a thermos flask in Skegness.

Monarch was aimed, not at the wealthy, but at ordinary families: “The man who came home on a Friday and put money in a jam jar to save for a summer holiday,” says Ms Hardie.

In those days flying felt like a luxury, with coq au vin, boeuf bourguignon and free drinks on the menu.

But times were anything but easy. The oil price spike of the early seventies sent another big name in package holidays, Court Line, into administration.

Monarch might have gone under too; Miss Hardie remembers her father being “very stressed”.

But the attitude in the industry was of mutual support says Ms Hardie, “not as cut-throat as it is now” and Monarch survived. It even took on some of Court Line’s redundant staff.

In the 1980s, while package holidays remained popular, there was a growing market for independent travel, with holiday-makers opting to mix and match their own flights and hotels.

Monarch responded by offering its first scheduled flights from Luton to Minorca in 1985. From then on it was competing directly with other carriers, not just as part of a tour operator.

Mr Hodgson had retired by then, one of his few regrets being that he’d bought the BAC 1-11 aircraft, that were so much noisier than the Boeing 720 “whispering giants” he’d bought before, says his daughter.

In 1995 newly founded low-cost airline easyJet set up its own base alongside Monarch in Luton and the budget airline industry grew rapidly, taking couples on weekend citybreaks, stag and hen parties to ever more exotic destinations, to ski resorts in winter, the beach in summer.

With the low cost airlines it was easier to book direct; that’s when Monarch started to struggle really,” says Ms Hardie.

The focus moved away from customer service towards those who offered the cheapest fare.

For a while there was room for everyone. And by the time of the financial crisis in2008 Monarch had 32 aircraft flying to over 100 destinations in India, Africa, Caribbean, United States and Europe.

But it couldn’t last.

The competition was relentless. It was expanding. It had very deep pockets even back when I was running Monarch seven or eight years ago,” recalls Tim Jeans, the firm’s former managing director.

There were warning signs then and I think subsequently the market has only got more difficult.

“Competition is all fair and normally very, very good for consumers, but ultimately competition can be unsustainable. And the demise of Monarch is a direct result of that,” Mr Jeans says.

In 2011 the Arab Spring pushed up oil prices once again. Over several years the Mantegazza family poured money in to patch up Monarch’s balance sheet.

But finally with a gaping deficit in the company’s pension plan, in 2014, the family had had enough. They put a final £50m into the company they had owned for half a century, and sold it on to turnaround specialists Greybull Capital.

The company abandoned long haul routes and 700 jobs were cut. It turned out to be only a temporary reprieve. Even a hefty investment from Greybull wasn’t enough to bring Monarch up to fighting weight to take on the budget carriers.

Terrorist attacks in Egypt, Turkey and Tunisia, the migrant crisis in southern Europe and more recently the weakness of the pound following the EU referendum vote have all kept UK holiday-makers away from some of Monarch’s most popular destinations.

On 2 October 2017 the airline’s accountants KPMG announced the business would close and authorities launched the biggest peacetime repatriation of Brits to bring Monarch’s last 110,000 passengers home.

But the airline itself has run out of runway.

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