Following the recent Inquest into the deaths of siblings Robert and Christianne (Christi) Shepherd from carbon monoxide poisoning whilst on holiday in Corfu, tour operator Thomas Cook Group commissioned Justin King CBE to carry out an independent review of the Group's customer health, safety, welfare, customer relations and crisis management practices and make recommendations for change. In addition to reviewing Thomas Cook documentation, the author also conducted interviews with directors, staff, advisers and suppliers as well as engaging with industry bodies and the families involved.

The report was published at the beginning of November 2015.

Background to the report

Six year old Bobby and seven year old Christi were on holiday with their father, Neil Shepherd and his partner, Ruth Beatson, staying at a semi-detached bungalow within the grounds of the Louis Corcyra Beach Hotel in Gouvia, Corfu. On the night of the 25/26 October 2006 the family were overcome by carbon monoxide fumes, leading to the death of the children and the near-deaths of the adults. 

Following the incident, both the Greek and English police carried out investigations and a civil claim was brought in the Greek court for compensation. This meant that the Inquest into the deaths was not held in England until April of this year, by West Yorkshire Coroner, David Hinchliff.

The narrative conclusion of the Inquest was that there was an incorrectly installed and badly maintained boiler, with a fuel protection device disconnected deliberately and air conditioning pipes badly fitted. Whilst it was concluded that the Hotel misled/lied to the Tour Operator about gas supplied to the hotel bungalows, inadequacies were also identified with audits/checks carried out by the Tour Operator and information given to resort staff, with a finding that the Tour Operator breached its duty of care. 

On 18 September, Mr Hinchliff issued a Report to Prevent Future Deaths to a number of organisations including Thomas Cook with responses to be provided by 16 November 2015. Thomas Cook had already commissioned King to carry out a review which is expected to feed into its formal response to the Coroner.

General observations

King's review identified a number of common issues across the Thomas Cook Group including:

  • Empowerment and reward – a mismatch between the accountabilities people have and the empowerment to deliver against these, with reward mechanisms reinforcing this mismatch. 
  • Customer knowledge – despite having significant data and information on customers, this was not used as well as it could be to the benefit of the customer
  • Group knowledge – breaking down the functional and national silos would give greater opportunity for learning from others within the Group - "almost everything that needs to be done is already happening somewhere in the Business" 
  • Industry leadership – King points out that many of the issues are issues for the Industry overall and that Thomas Cook "must not be shy of taking the lead" including with industry bodies and competitors
  • Learning organisation - King identifies that there has been a move towards this but there remains much to do to embed this approach.

Whilst King acknowledges that it is not the role of the report to investigate or pass judgement on the relationship between Thomas Cook and the families involved, he describes the legal backdrop to the case as having "weighed heavily on the decision-making of the Company" and "decisions were often not taken in the sort of caring way you would expect from a company such as Thomas Cook." Attempts to reach out to the family were described as "intermittent, sometimes ill-timed and often ill-judged." 

Following the Inquest, King notes that the current CEO, Peter Fankhauser, has met with the family and this has led to the creation of initiatives such as the Safer Tourism Foundation. In addition, despite initially denying a request from the families to pay their legal fees in connection with the Inquest, these were eventually paid.

Click here to view the table.

The Thomas Cook Group has published a response to King's review stating that while it "makes for uncomfortable reading in parts" it "accepts the findings and is committed to learning from them".

Commercial impact

The review identifies a number of issues which will affect organisations both in the leisure travel industry and more generally.

In particular, the review highlights that simply having a health and safety management system and policies and procedures in place is insufficient unless there is a culture in which health and safety is seen as a universal responsibility.

It also demonstrates that taking a purely legal approach to dealing with victims and families of victims is likely to backfire in terms of reputational damage and a wider approach needs to be considered from the start.

Finally, it brings into stark focus the importance of managing relationships with third parties, and in particular, the need for a process of formal follow-up in situations where performance is not at an adequate level.