Four Years On: The Collapse Of Monarch Airlines

Yesterday marked four years since the collapse of Monarch Airlines. Monarch was a UK-based scheduled and charter airline that specialized in flights to leisure destinations. It had bases all around the country, and flew for nearly half a century. However, in October 2017, 49 years of British aviation history came to an end as the airline collapsed.

Monarch Airlines Getty
Monarch Airlines ceased operations on October 2nd, 2017. Photo: Getty Images

A different airline for the time

Monarch Airlines was founded in June 1967 by two former British Eagle International Airlines directors: Bill Hodgson and Don Peacock. The airline industry at the time was rather different to what we have become used to today. Back then, air travel tended to only be a realistic option for richer passengers. However, Monarch intended to change this.

Specifically, the airline, which commenced operations in April 1968, tailored its service to be more suited to the average British family at the time. It aimed to take such passengers to European tourism hotspots, and its first flight did just that. Indeed, Monarch’s inaugural service was a charter flight from London Luton Airport to the Spanish capital of Madrid.

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Monarch Bristol Britannia
The Bristol Britannia was a key aircraft for Monarch in its early years. Photo: Alan Wilson via Flickr

From Britannias to the jet age

Monarch Airlines operated its first flight using an ex-Caledonian Airways Bristol Type 175 ‘Britannia’ turboprop. This design was central to Monarch’s early operations, and it flew two in its first year. 1969 saw the carrier acquire further examples from British Eagle, which had ceased operations the previous year. By the end of the decade, it had six Britannias.

While the four-engine Britannia was a capable aircraft, it was a little behind the times. After all, by the time it entered service in 1957 with the British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC), the ‘Jet Age’ was already on the horizon. This was a time of technological and social change that saw jet-powered planes enable the wider population to experience air travel.

As such, it wasn’t long before Monarch also began to reap the benefits of jet-powered aircraft. Its first flight operated by such a plane took place in December 1971, when it introduced the Boeing 720B. These ‘whispering giants’ proved a hit at the airline, catalyzing a transition to an all-jet fleet. Its last Britannia turboprop left the carrier in May 1976.

Monarch Boeing 720B
Monarch’s first jetliner was the Boeing 720B. Photo: Andrew Thomas via Flickr

The new all-jet fleet saw Monarch acquire further Boeing 720Bs, as well as examples of the rear-engined BAC One-Eleven 500. The former of these jets came to the airline from British Caledonian, while Monarch acquired the latter after Court Line ceased operations. 1980 saw the airline add another Boeing design, namely the 737-200, to its fleet.

A diverse leisure-based network

Monarch’s first operating base was at London Luton Airport, from which it operated its inaugural flight to Madrid back in 1968. However, the growth of the package holiday market in the UK was reflected at the airlines that served this sector, such as Monarch. As such, it eventually became large enough to open further operating bases elsewhere.

Four Years On: The Collapse Of Monarch Airlines
Monarch had several operating bases, both in the UK and abroad. Photo: Getty Images.

This process began in 1981, when it opened new UK bases at Glasgow, London Gatwick, and Manchester. It also set up camp at Germany’s Berlin Tegel Airport, from which it operated one of the aforementioned 737-200s. In its later years, Monarch also established operating bases at Birmingham, East Midlands, Leeds Bradford, and Málaga.

In terms of where Monarch flew, the bulk of its traffic concentrated on European leisure routes. This saw it serve both summer and winter hotspots, in the likes of the Mediterranean and the Alps respectively. However, the advent of ETOPS also allowed it to serve US destinations like Orlando using the Boeing 757 (via Gander) and the Airbus A330 (direct).

Monarch Boeing 757
In 1988, Monarch became the first UK airline to operate a twin-engined transatlantic passenger flight. Photo: Aero Icarus via Flickr

21st-century troubles

Monarch continued to expand into the 21st century, but cracks in the airline eventually began to emerge. For example, 2011 saw the carrier cancel its order for six Boeing 787-8 aircraft due to a change in network strategy. This came two years after it recorded a £32.3 million pre-tax loss in 2009, equivalent to £40.6 million ($55 million) today.

Despite a marginal profit of £1.4 million in 2010, the airline’s moss-making form returned in 2011 with a £45 million deficit. A key factor in this huge loss was a combination of rising fuel costs and a stagnant market in the years after the 2007-09 recession. In an attempt to combat this loss, the airline was granted a £75 million rescue package.

2014 saw a change of ownership, whereby Greybull Capital acquired a 90% stake in Monarch. Part of this deal saw the airline downsize its fleet, which, in turn, saw passenger numbers drop by 19% in 2015. Tensions in Egypt and Turkey at the time meant that passengers were particularly hesitant to fly on these routes, worsening Monarch’s situation.

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Monarch’s collapse left its check-in areas across the UK deserted. Photo: Getty Images

The end of the line

Monarch’s story came to an end four years ago yesterday, on October 2nd, 2017. The final nail in the coffin was the fact that the airline was unable to retain its Civil Aviation Authority ATOL license owing to its ongoing financial struggles. The sudden nature of this meant that, on the evening of October 1st, Monarch even had to cancel some flights during boarding.

According to the BBC, Monarch employed 2,100 people at the time of its collapse. Of these, 1,858 were made redundant, while the remainder stayed put to help coordinate repatriation efforts. Monarch’s collapse was the largest in UK airline history at the time (later exceeded by Thomas Cook), and 110,000 passengers were stranded overseas.

Monarch had 35 planes when it collapsed, and its last flight (ZB3785 from Tel Aviv) landed in Manchester at 03:19 on October 2nd. The CAA’s repatriation effort that followed was then the largest in post-war UK history. Costing £60 million over two weeks, aircraft from carriers ranging from Qatar Airways to Wamos Air flew Monarch’s stranded passengers home.

What are your memories of Monarch Airlines? Did you ever fly with the carrier? Let us know your thoughts and experiences in the comments.

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