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ATOL celebrates protecting UK holidaymakers since 1973

Date posted: 30.06.2023

What do you think of when you are booking your next holiday abroad? Golden sun, golden sand or bringing home some golden memories?

We’ve been thinking about gold quite a bit recently as we mark our 50th anniversary this summer.

Over the past five decades we have financially protected hundreds of millions of trips and helped millions of consumers in the rare event that their travel firm ceased to trade. Since it was first introduced ATOL has remained a constant, offering peace of mind for UK holidaymakers.

Viva Espana – package holidays take off

It all started back in 1973 when the first Air Travel Organisers’ Licenses (ATOLs for short) were issued to UK travel companies.

Although organised tours were first pioneered by Thomas Cook in the mid-19th century, it was post second World War when package tours as we know them today really took off.

Once seen as the preserve of the wealthy, air travel became more available to more modest budgets in the 1950s. Enterprising tour operators started to offer cost-effective package holidays to countries like Spain, Italy and Greece to Brits who had previously ‘staycationed’ at home.

The move to the mass market really started to accelerate in the 1960s when the Spanish Government funded the rapid development of hotels and airports in its Mediterranean resorts and islands.

Trips to enjoy sun, sea and sand overseas quickly replaced caravans and guesthouses in UK seaside towns and became so popular that the Carry On team satirised the cultural shift in its 1972 film ‘Carry on Abroad,’ set in the fictional and comically unfinished Elsbels Palace Hotel.

Calls for consumer protection

However, the move from Torquay to Torremolinos was not without its hiccups and the first failures of tour operators, which started in the 1960s, led to increased calls for some form of financial protection to protect consumers.

In 1967 the Government of the day set up a committee under Sir Ronald Edwards whose report, “British Air Transport in the Seventies” recommended the establishment of an aviation regulator, the Civil Aviation Authority, which officially launched in April 1972.

The Civil Aviation Authority set about establishing a consumer protection scheme to protect holidaymakers and in the summer of 1973, a total of 274 ATOLs were granted for the first time.

In 1972, figures from the Civil Aviation Authority, based on British Airports Authority data, show that Heathrow, Gatwick, Luton, Stansted and Southend were our biggest airports. Nearly 19 million passengers flew out of Heathrow with almost 28 million people passing through these five airports alone.

ATOL scheme is tested for the first time

By the early 1970s, Court Line was the second largest tour operator in the UK with subsidiaries including Clarksons Holidays, Horizon, and Medvillas.

In 1970 Clarksons celebrated its millionth customer and was the first travel company to advertise on British television, only a few years after it started offering mass-market holidays, mainly to Spain.

However, by 1973 Clarksons had lost over a £3 million (more than £30 million in today’s money), when it was badly hit by rising fuel prices after an oil crisis sparked by the Yom Kippur war.

High inflation strikes and power shortages in the UK contributed to an economic downturn and holiday bookings slowed, which saw Court Line collapse right in the peak of 1974’s holiday season.

Clarksons held an ATOL and there was a bond in place to pay for bringing its 35,000 customers home from abroad.

We successfully flew everyone home, but sadly there was not enough money left over to refund about 100,000 people who had paid in advance for their holidays.

The Government responded by establishing the Air Travel Reserve Fund (ATRF) which it initially financed with a loan of £15 million, of which just under was needed £2 million to meet the outstanding Clarkson’s costs.

ATOL holders were required to contribute one percent (later changed to two percent) of their turnover to the Fund. All Court Line customers eventually had their money returned.

The way the ATOL scheme operates and is funded has changed and evolved in the past 50 years, but the fundamental principle of protecting consumers remains the same.

Anyone who books a holiday financially protected by the ATOL scheme can jet off safe in the knowledge that they will not be left out of pocket or stranded abroad in the rare event that their tour operator collapses.

You can check if your air package trip is financially protected by ATOL by using our handy online tool. 





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