Monday 23 September 2019

Corfu gas deaths: Thomas Cook accused of putting costs before customers

Christi and Bobby Shepherd as the jury in the inquests into the deaths of the two young children who died of carbon monoxide poisoning during a holiday in Greece will continue its deliberations Credit: West Yorkshire Police/PA Wire
Christi and Bobby Shepherd as the jury in the inquests into the deaths of the two young children who died of carbon monoxide poisoning during a holiday in Greece will continue its deliberations Credit: West Yorkshire Police/PA Wire

Dominic Harris

Thomas Cook has a tendency to protect costs ahead of customer experience, a review into the travel firm's health and safety practices following the deaths of two children at one of its resorts found.

Bobby and Christi Shepherd died while on holiday in Corfu with their parents in October 2006.

The youngsters, aged six and seven, were overcome by carbon monoxide fumes from a faulty boiler and died at the Louis Corcyra Beach Hotel on the Greek holiday island.

An inquest into their deaths earlier this year found the tour operator had "breached their duty of care", and that they had been unlawfully killed.

A report into Thomas Cook's customer, health, safety, welfare and crisis management concluded that parts of the business were putting financial priorities ahead of customers' needs.

The report, carried out by former Sainsbury's chief executive Justin King, found that processes for crises or incidents which have a major impact on customers "is set up for success and appears to work well".

But it said: "Individual profit centres such as the 'airline' and 'destination management' (divisions) have a tendency to protect cost rather than maximise the customer experience.

"Their approach is closer to 'What's the minimum we can do to solve the problem?' rather than 'What should we do to make this as good as we can?'. This is a cultural as much as a financial challenge."

And while Thomas Cook has a "risk dashboard" process to identify key risks, "there is an over-emphasis on financial and reputational risk and less emphasis on customer consequences and outcomes than is appropriate", the report found.

Describing the background of the relationship between Thomas Cook and the family of Bobby and Christi Shepherd, Mr King said: "Decisions were often not taken in the thoughtful and caring way you would expect from a company such as Thomas Cook."

He added in the report: "The fact that this tragic situation spanned almost nine years is testimony to how much the legal, rather than the human, considerations dominated the landscape.

"The company did reach out to the family several times over the years but these approaches were intermittent, sometimes ill-timed and often ill-judged.

Read more: Corfu children deaths: convicted staff found working at Thomas Cook hotels

"Conversely, approaches from the family met with untimely and somewhat abrupt responses, or, in the case of Mr Shepherd's attempts to arrange a meeting with the company in 2013, no response at all."

Mr King said Thomas Cook CEO Peter Fankhauser had now met with the family, including the children's mother, Sharon Wood, and father, Neil Shepherd, several times since the conclusion of the inquest into their deaths.

The results of the meetings include the creation of a new carbon monoxide charity, The Safer Tourism Foundation, and the payment of the family's legal fees by the company.

Mrs Wood is also collaborating with Thomas Cook to develop a "bereavement help pack", which the review recommended should be widely circulated once completed.

Mr King commended the company for the creation of the charity and the bereavement pack and recommended it should offer customers the option of buying a carbon monoxide monitor as part of the holiday booking process.

He said carbon monoxide - which has caused five deaths on package tours over a 25-year period - is not on the industry's "risk list" for danger of serious injury, illness or death and said awareness within the industry and among travellers is low.

The report recommended that Thomas Cook should include a section on carbon monoxide in its brochures and website and train resort staff about the risks. It also said the company should take a "leading role" in collating industry data on health and safety issues.

The report found that the nine years since the deaths of the children had been a time of "radical change" for Thomas Cook.

Mr King said much had been done to move in the right direction but the company was "slow to change" on health and safety issues and described the changes as a "work in progress".

He said: "It is clear that, to date, the actions have been insufficient or progress has been slow, no doubt partly due to the size and complexity of the business."

The report made recommendations about health and safety, carbon monoxide, quality assurance and contracting, destination management, customer service and relations and incident management.

It said that many of the issues raised in the review were for the industry and said Thomas Cook "must not be shy of taking the lead".

The review also found that the company was beginning to listen to customers and had started to respond "with pace and vigour".

Mr King said in the report: "This was not always the case in the past. There remains much to do to embed this approach."

In a statement, Christi and Bobby's parents said the report was "a move in the right direction and the next step in what has been a long, hard fight for justice".

"Our hope is that we can bring about change that will dramatically reduce the number of deaths and injuries from carbon monoxide, both in the UK and abroad."

They continued: "We feel optimistic for the future but continue to call for all tour operators to put the health and well-being of their customers at the heart of their industry."

Mary Creagh, MP for Wakefield, said: "Justin King's report pulls no punches in its damning assessment of Thomas Cook's treatment of Christi and Bobby's parents in the nine years since their tragic deaths. It finds the company's contact with the family was intermittent and abrupt, and that staff had a focus on cost control and legal compliance rather than helping the family face these devastating events.

"I welcome the report and Peter Fankhauser's determination to learn the lessons of this tragedy. The recommendation to offer a carbon monoxide alarm to families at the time of booking is a welcome suggestion and the recommendation for Thomas Cook to take a lead on safety in the travel industry is evident."

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