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What happens when the airline you’re flying goes bankrupt mid-flight?

We recently flew economy with Cobalt Aero from Manchester (UK) to Larnaca (Cyprus). Cobalt had routes connecting Cyprus with numerous European destinations including London and Manchester in the UK, as well as Dublin, Copenhagen, Paris, Dusseldorf, Frankfurt, Zurich, Geneva, Madrid and Moscow. They also covered Athens, Thessaloniki, Mykonos, Chania and Heraklion in Greece, and in the Middle East flew to Beirut, Tel Aviv and Abu Dhabi.

You could be forgiven if you’d not previously heard of the airline – it was probably primarily known by Cypriots and people working in the industry, and perhaps by some people residing in the above locations. That said, with its six aircraft it had already completed more than 12,000 flights and served over a million passengers in a little over 2 years since its inception.

I was working on an assignment for the airline, documenting their offering for the purposes of a review on A Luxury Travel Blog. We flew from Terminal 1 at Manchester where check-in was a reasonably quick and largely uneventful process.

Our flight was on 17th October 2018, departing Manchester at 15.30 and landing at Larnaca at 22.15, with our return scheduled for a week later. There were five of us travelling together on board this Airbus A320 – although I was also working, we were also enjoying a multi-generational getaway, so I was travelling with my wife and two sons, as well as my mother.

It was a typical grey day in Manchester so very much ‘business as usual’.

On board, the seats were comfortable. The in-flight magazine was dated August 2018 and a little bit worse for wear as a result, with features on Halkidiki, idyllic destations near Athens, Cyprus’ Blue Flag beaches and ‘Jerusalem – Holy City’, as well as a culture section and a number of interviews.

Take-off was on time and everything going to plan. The only minor irritation was that it was quite hot on board and the air conditioning didn’t seem to be working too well.

There were no screens in the headrests but one rather nice feature on board was the Bluebox portable wireless IFE platform called Bluebox WOW. This meant that wireless media content could be streamed to passengers’ own devices – to phones, laptops and even Kindles. Between us we managed to get this to work on an iPad and a OnePlus smartphone, but struggled with getting it to connect to a Lenovo laptop and an iPhone.

There are apparently three Bluebox Wow boxes per aircraft, conveniently secured in overhead lockers, but perhaps there is only so much ‘load’ each one can take.

On the face of it, this was an airline that looked to be going places. In addition to generating trust with its passengers, the airline was gradually starting to build relationships with other airlines, most notably with Etihad Airways, helping to widen passenger reach and encourage more visitors from the Middle East and beyond to Cyprus. Other similar partnerships were expected to be announced soon, laying the foundations for further expansion.

But, whilst we were mid-flight, news broke of the airline’s collapse. Chinese investment had been withdrawn and the carrier had failed to reach a deal with a potential European investor. Officially, the airline’s bankruptcy was declared just over an hour after we touched down, when the very last commercial flight, from Heathrow to Larnaca landed at 23:50, as I understand is customary in these situations, but it seems people were already ‘in the know’ some hours before this official declaration.

This was obviously a sad day for all employees of the airline, many of which I suspect had also been affected by the bankruptcy of Cyprus Airways as recently as 2015.

It seems surprising that Cyprus is unable to sustain its own airline given that tourism is the major driver to the island’s economy. With its almost year-round warm temperatures, it is a more reliable destination for Winter sun than many other island options within the Mediterranean, not to mention the beautiful and diverse coastline that has become world-renowned for its quality, consistently receiving awards, accolades and top rankings.

Let’s hope the employees find new work soon but, for the remainder of this article, I’d like to focus on our personal experience of this situation and hopefully some of this may be useful to others facing a similar fate either now or in the future.

How we found out

You would think that we may have heard an announcement when we landed, either when still on board the plane or once inside the airport. Or that fellow passengers might have been chatting about their respective predicaments whilst waiting for their luggage at the baggage carousel. Or that at some point an email might have landed in my inbox. But there was nothing like this. I genuinely don’t think any passengers knew and myself and my family were equally oblivious.

The next morning, when the headlines hit in earnest, we were staying at our villa on the outskirts of Protaras (more on that in a later blog post), not watching TV, not following the news and not spending our time on social media, but instead enjoying some quality family time away. I checked my emails occasionally but there was no notification.

Mid-way through our time away, we were due to move to another villa nearer the centre of Protaras and I had emailed Athina from Imagine Villa Rentals about the arrangements for the transfer. She had been very helpful with all the logistics prior to travelling and, from earlier correspondence, knew that I was also working for Cobalt. She called me to explain that the villa we were vacating would need to be cleaned since new guests were arriving that day, as would the one we were moving into since it too was only being vacated that morning, so it would just need a little patience on our part. This was not a problem and we took the opportunity to go and have a relaxed lunch in Protaras. Athina also made a fleeting reference to “the problems with Cobalt” in the conversation. I asked what she meant and she told me of the airline’s demise. This was the first we had heard of it.

By now it was the afternoon of 19th October so almost 48 hours since news of the bankruptcy broke. It was half term week so flights were already largely full and we suddenly had no means of getting home. Our planned return with Cobalt was going to be on the morning of 24th October, a week after our departure, flying Larnaca to Manchester. Had it not been for this passing mention in our telephone conversation, we may not have discovered there was a problem until we’d returned to the airport, only to find there was no flight.

What we did

Of course, as soon as I finished the phone call, I went and told the rest of the family the news. We were all somewhat shocked as you can imagine. We immediately went online, first to verify the announcement and, once that was very quickly confirmed, started to look at solutions to get home. By now there were various news articles to help passengers affected, but time was not in our favour. People in a similar situation to ourselves would have already started making new travel arrangements on flights that already had very limited availability. As we started to search different airline websites, we were getting some searches return results with no availability until April! (when flights would be resuming for next season)

In addition to frantically finding out what we could, I messaged a number of people. Firstly, Paul Simmons, the Chief Commercial Office at Cobalt, who I had corresponded with prior to working for the airline, to express my sympathies and ask for his advice. He responded very quickly, suggesting two Cypriot companies to contact in order to get “a one-way ticket for repatriation whose cost will be covered by the state”. We attempted to contact both of these but didn’t have much luck – the first said they would get back to us “today or tomorrow” and I didn’t feel very confident about that (they never did come back to me that day and I didn’t feel we had time on our side); the second we couldn’t get through to so I sent an email (they got back to us some time later, suggesting flights that took us back to Birmingham a day later than planned, which is not where we had left our car, of course).

I also messaged my travel insurance company, Columbus Direct – more on their response shortly – with whom I had an annual family travel insurance policy. And, having read various references to the Cypriot government helping with the costs of repatriation, I even added Georgios Lakkotrypis, the Minister of Energy, Commerce, Industry & Tourism at the Government of Cyprus to my Linkedin, including a note with my connection request that explained my situation and asked for his advice. He accepted the request, and would have seen this message when doing so, but I haven’t yet received a reply.

Meanwhile, my mother found a number for easyjet that was included in an article about Cobalt in the UK press, so we tried that. They couldn’t accommodate us all on one flight, but they had one seat for the 23rd, one seat for the 24th and four seats for the 25th, flying out of Paphos rather than Larnaca, but at least all going to Manchester, ableit landing in the early hours of the morning, at a rescue fare rate of just £80 per ticket which seemed like a lot of goodwill on their part.

We made the decision to go back on the flights on the 24th and 25th, with my wife taking the solo flight as she really needed to get back for a number of reasons, and the rest of us following 24 hours later on the plane that could accommodate four of us. This presented us with a number of other logistical hurdles – we all needed to get to Paphos and, since we didn’t have a hire car, we decided the best option was to go in one taxi and the four of us that were staying on to stay the night in a hotel. It was a 2-hour car journey so this seemed like the best option rather than us each make that journey separately. We also needed to arrange accommodation, taxis to the airport from the hotel, a hotel for my wife when she landed in Manchester, transport arrangements for her to get home (so we could use the car for the four of us when we landed), etc. etc. None of it was insurmountable but it did require quite a bit of extra planning.

So a quick interlude here to say a very big thank you to the Alexander the Great Beach Hotel for accommodating us at short notice. As you can see, this hotel occupies a prime location right on the sea front. It’s a comfortable, well-equipped hotel with a large outdoor pool – and an indoor conservatory pool – and swim-up bar.

The hotel is very family friendly and has no less than four on-site restaurants – Roxane (buffet), Limanaki (Greek tavern), Seven Orchids (pan Asian), and Garibaldi (Italian). It is is part of the Kanika Hotels & Resorts group that is well known for the family hotels of Olympic Lagoon Resort Agia Napa & Paphos, The Alexander the Great Beach Hotel Paphos and Elias Beach Hotel in Limassol, with more than 100 prestigious industry awards.

Also, ‘heads up’ to the Paphos Aphrodite Waterpark. Going to the waterpark is always a top day out with our boys so it seemed to make sense to visit this one since it was just a little over a mile from the hotel. We walked there and back but it’s is easily accessible by car or the local bus which drops off right at the waterpark’s doorstep. There are loads of high-thrill rides to enjoy here – the free fall, kamikaze, twister and many more – as well as plenty for those who don’t want to partake in anything too extreme.

Other highlights include family rafting, the lazy river which stretches 400m around the park and the park’s famous air-filled wet bubble which offers lots of fun for anyone wishing to attempt to reach the summit.

I didn’t take my phone or any valuables with me but there are secure lockers on site as well as free WiFi. It was quite quiet at the time of our visit as a storm was forecast (it never really lived up to expectations) but the lifeguards on duty were friendly, approachable and attentive. A brand new slide is planned for 2019 so watch this space…

Once we knew our plans for getting home, we also knew we would be picking our car up almost two days later than originally agreed. This had been arranged through Skyparksecure at a cost of £64.03 for the week so we got in touch with them and this was the response:

Dear Paul Johnson,

In response to your Facebook message, we here at SkyParkSecure.com are a Price Comparison Website and act as a Booking Agent for Car Parking Companies at all the major Airports in the UK.

SkyParkSecure.com do not own or operate the Car Parks and do not provide the Car Parking Services, our Offices are based in Blackpool and we do not have any direct contact with the vehicles.

I have contacted Official Manchester Airport Meet & Greet – T1 on your behalf, and advised them of your new return details. They have advised that they will ensure that your vehicle is brought back to the Meet and Greet area and is ready for your collection upon your return.

When you land back into Manchester Airport and have passed through baggage reclaim and customs, you will need to follow the departure procedure on your booking confirmation, making your way to the Meet and Greet area and collecting your keys from the Meet and Greet Reception.

The car park will charge you their daily overstay rate of £25.00 per day for the extra days at the car park when you collect your keys from the Meet and Greet reception.

If SkyParkSecure.com are able to be of any further assistance, please do not hesitate to contact our customer services team on 0345 4599 250 or via email.

Kind regards,

[Name removed to protect privacy]
Customer Service Team

I have to say I felt a little aggrieved by this. The additional day and a half was going to be not all that far short of the amount that we had paid for the entire week. In contrast to the airlines who were offering rescue fares at rates much lower than they would normally charge, it seemed like it was a different mindset when it came to airport parking – this was an opportunity to profiteer from the misfortune of passengers who were facing circumstances outside of their control. As it turned out, though, when we went to collect the key to our car, there was no further charge made. I don’t know if this was because someone had overruled the decision, or if the fee was forgotten or simply that nobody wanted the task of dealing with that paperwork at 2 o’clock in the morning, but thankfully there were no additional costs in the end.

The costs

So, what did it all cost to get back home? Here’s a summary of the additional costs incurred:

Estimate on phone calls related to repatriation = £15
5 rescue flights with easyjet @ £80 each = £400
Taxi from Protaras to Paphos = €200
Taxi for my wife to get to the airport = €28
Subsistence for my wife at the airport = €7.50
Subsistence for my wife on the flight = £11.95
Night in hotel at Manchester Airport (we used my points but equivalent cost was £160) = £160
Train for my wife to get near home = £35
Taxi for my wife to get from train station to home = £8
Extra night in hotel in Paphos (2 rooms) – gratis (I did work for the hotel in lieu of payment)
Subsistence for the four of us remaining in Paphos for an extra day and a half = €213.25
Taxi to airport for the rest of us = €28
In flight subsistence = £3.50
Extension to airport parking in Manchester – not charged
Additional day of ‘doggy day care’ for our dog back home = £17
Estimate of tips on some of the above = €50

Total cost: £650.45 + €526.75

Or, to put it in one currency, the actual cost to us was approximately £1,125 (or €1,260), which I don’t think is bad considering this included 5 flights, hotel stays (3 different rooms across 2 hotels), multiple forms of transport and an extension to our stay that led to other additional costs. Had it not been for one or two industry contacts, most notably in the hotel industry, the cost would have been significantly greater.

Getting compensated

At present, I have yet to receive any form of compensation. As mentioned, I reached out to the Cypriot government via the Tourism Minister having read that they were saying they would bear the costs of repatriation. I don’t know if this is assured and know this isn’t the official channel but was curious to see if I would get a response. As yet, I haven’t, but I might look at exploring this avenue further.

I’m really expecting my travel insurance company to bear the cost. I’ve never previously had to make a claim but was rather hoping this would be a straightforward process. So far, though, I’ve been less than impressed. Despite having clearly explained our circumstances in an email and despite a clear statement on repatriation in their policy wording, they replied with this:

Dear Mr. Ian Smith,

Thank you for your email.

We can confirm if the flight is cancelled by the Airline, you would need to contact them to seek reimbursement/compensation.

Alternatively, you my [sic] contact the Tour Operator/Travel Agent.

We hope this is of assistance to you.

If you have any further queries, do not hesitate to contact us.

Kind regards,

[Name removed to protect privacy]
Customer Services

I have no idea who Mr. Smith is but am guessing it could be someone who had written at around the same time and was facing a similar situation to ourselves. (‘Smith wasn’t the real surname used, by the way – I’ve just replaced it to protect that person’s privacy.) Granted, the travel insurance company did follow up with another email addressed ‘Dear Dr. Paul Johnson’ but by this time I had already starting composing my reply to them and the content of the message was otherwise identical. I re-iterated my original enquiry, explaining that I was not talking about reimbursement for flights paid for, but that I was instead talking about repatriation costs. That was on the 19th October, now almost two weeks ago, and they have not responded.

I don’t intend to leave it at this, though! I’ll be chasing the travel insurance company and will refer them to this blog post. I’ll also come back and update the post with details of any outcome.

In the meantime, if you have any thoughts on this, any stories of your own to share, or if you were also affected by Cobalt’s insolvency, please leave a comment below. We would love to hear from you. Thank you!

Disclosure: I was working for the now saldy-defunct Cobalt Aero airline, as well as for Imagine Villa Rentals, which I’m pleased to say seems to be going from strength to strength, with over 150 properties in and around the Protaras area. Thanks also go to both the Alexander the Great Beach Hotel and the Paphos Aphrodite Waterpark for hosting us.

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