LONDON (AFP) - British short-haul carrier Monarch Airlines went bust on Monday in the biggest airline failure in Britain, prompting the government to take emergency action to return home 110,000 stranded passengers.
Monarch and its holidays business went into administration, with KPMG appointed to oversee the financial chaos that has left nearly 2,000 employees having to find new employment.
The airline had been struggling financially for a while and won a cash injection a year ago that allowed it to continue flying and fund growth plans, as the sector faced turbulence from Brexit and terrorism.
The UK's Civil Aviation Authority described the events on Monday as "the biggest ever UK airline failure."
"All future holidays and flights provided by these companies have been cancelled and are no longer operating," it said.
The CAA said that the government had asked it "to support Monarch customers currently abroad to get back to the UK at the end of their holiday at no extra cost to them".
Passengers are being flown back from numerous countries, including France, Greece, Israel and Turkey on aircraft leased by the CAA.
"I got a text message... to say that the airline had ceased business," Irish graphic designer Aine Cassidy told AFP, after returning on a CAA-chartered flight from Menorca, Spain, to Luton airport, north of London.
"I thought it was maybe a joke or a mistake so I did a quick Google and saw that Monarch was in trouble." Among planes being leased were Airbus A320s from Qatar Airways, according to the flight-tracking site Flightradar24.
"The handling by the government and the CAA was excellent," said David Banks, who returned to Luton with his wife after spending a week in Menorca.
"But, by Monarch, some kind of contact would have been nice."
Hundreds of thousands of customers will be affected by Monarch's collapse, most of whom have future bookings, the CAA said.
"We are quite upset... we don't know anything. I suppose it's just a waiting game," holidaymaker Desmond Morland told AFP in Cyprus after being told he may face a delay returning to Britain.
The government said it was overseeing what it described as the biggest repatriation since the end of World War II.
"This is a hugely distressing situation for British holidaymakers abroad and my first priority is to help them get back to the UK," Transport Secretary Chris Grayling said in a statement.
"That is why I have immediately ordered the country's biggest ever peacetime repatriation to fly about 110,000 passengers who could otherwise have been left stranded abroad." But the Unite labour union hit back, saying ministers rebuffed requests by Monarch - Britain's tenth-largest airline according to Euromonitor International - to provide a bridging loan.
"Monarch's workforce has worked tirelessly and loyally, with great sacrifice, to try and turn the airline around in the last year," said Unite official Oliver Richardson.
"Their hard work has been undone by a government seemingly content to... allow one of the UK's oldest airlines go into administration."
By Monday evening 1,858 of around 2,100 employees at Monarch's airline and tour group had been made redundant, KPMG said.
Affected parties used social media to get their messages across, mirroring a situation a week ago when Ryanair cancelled thousands of flights as it battles to overcome a shortage of pilots.
"Monarch customers in the UK: don't go to the airport. There will be no more Monarch flights," the budget carrier said on Twitter.
Meanwhile customer Holly-Rae Copeland tweeted: "Just when you think you've avoided Ryanair's flight cancellations, #monarchairlines go into administration on the day of your flight." Blair Nimmo, a KPMG partner and joint administrator, said "mounting cost pressures and increasingly competitive market conditions in the European short-haul market have contributed to the Monarch Group experiencing a sustained period of trading losses".
The collapse of Monarch, headquartered in Luton, was meanwhile "good news" for rival airlines, said ETX Capital analyst Neil Wilson.
"Shares in Ryanair and EasyJet both rose... as the market reacted to the news of the demise of Monarch after 50 years in business," Wilson said.