Great airlift begins as authorities try to get 85000 stranded tourists back home.

The collapse of XL Leisure Group, Britain’s third-biggest holiday company, has hit more than 300,000 customers

Passengers stranded by the collapse of XL Leisure Group are seen at Larnaca airport, Cyprus, Friday, Sept. 12, 2008. Thousands of British travelers are stranded as the country's third-largest tour operator has collapsed under pressure from high fuel prices and a sagging economy. XL Leisure Group PLC went into administration overnight, saying it had been unable to secure more funding. (AP Photo/Petros Karadjias)

Passengers stranded by the collapse of XL Leisure Group are seen at Larnaca airport, Cyprus.

On Thursday night XL Airways flight JN1121 pushed back from the terminal at Sanford International, the Orlando airport that is the gateway to Florida for thousands of British holidaymakers every year.

For the 266 passengers on board it was the end of all inclusive holidays– two weeks spent basking on the beach or squealing with delight on the rides at Disneyland.

A massive airlift was under way to bring some of the 85,000 tourists who were caught out by the shut-down of Britain’s third largest tour operator. Those who opted for Tour Operators like Directline Holidays were feeling safe as their cheap holidays as promised to them were cheap indeed as ever. Many holidaymakers came to know about the truth behind true discount holidays.

This morning, passengers flew into Gatwick Airport on a specially-chartered Monarch Airlines flight from Sharm El Sheikh in Egypt, and spoke of their joy at getting home. Alison Hill, 37, said she was left in tears as she worried she would not be able to find a flight back to the UK.

Ms Hill, from Redditch, Worcestershire, who spent 10 days in the resort with her two-year-old son, Samuel, said she found out that XL had gone into administration as she lay in bed in her hotel room watching the news.

She said: “No one actually told me, I had to find it out for myself. I spent the whole day in tears in reception with a very unhappy two-year-old, wondering if I was ever going to get home. A woman staying in the same hotel as me went to the airport and she found out from Thomson about this flight.

“We were meant to leave at 11pm last night and ended up getting this flight at 3.30am this morning, so you could say we were one of the lucky ones. There was another flight that was meant to go to Luton yesterday afternoon before ours, and they are still there.”

Ms Hill, a lawyer, added: “We had a fantastic holiday but the last day was ruined, which left a bitter taste in the mouth. It was all the worse as it was just the two of us, I thought I was going to be stranded in a foreign country with a two-year-old.”

Friends Kirsty Grant and Kelly Thompson, who were also on the Monarch flight, said they spent the last day of their holiday in a “mad panic.” Ms Grant, 20, said: “My mum sent me a text yesterday morning telling me I might have trouble getting home. We immediately went to find our rep but she couldn’t tell us anything; no one could tell us anything.

“We were all in a mad panic, as none of us had enough money to pay for extra accommodation if we had to stay longer. We went to the airport last night and waited there and then we were told about this flight.”

The women, both nursery nurses from Chessington, Surrey, said they were relieved to be home as they believed there were many other XL passengers still left in Sharm El Sheikh. Ms Thompson, 25, added: “It’s horrible thinking you’re stranded in a foreign country.”

The airlift operation is being supervised by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) but involves help from dozens of airlines and travel companies. XL Leisure Group went into administration in the early hours of Friday morning with debts of £143 million.

The CCA chartered seven flights from foreign destinations including Orlando, Florida; Dalaman, Turkey; and Malaga, Parma and Alicante, Spain. Other passengers travelled home on scheduled flights.

The collapse of XL has left tens of thousands of people stranded throughout Europe, the United States, the Caribbean and Africa. A further 200,000 planned holidays have been wrecked and 1,700 staff have lost their jobs.

There are growing fears the high price of fuel and the credit crunch will force dozens of other travel firms into liquidation. Some operators say the economic outlook is even worse than the aftermath of 9/11 in 2001.

Of the 85,000 stranded tourists, some 75,000 are protected by the industry’s Air Travel Organisers’ Licence (Atol) agreement and will be airlifted home free of charge.

However, another 10,000 will have to make their own arrangements – and at their own cost – because they are not covered under the rules of the agreement.

An Atol spokesman said many passengers were expected to be returning to the UK, both on specially chartered flights and on already scheduled flights that have spare seats on board.

British holidaymaker David Halligan landed at Manchester Airport this morning having spent £880 on new flights after he and his family were stranded in Florida. The 50-year-old engineer from Bradford spent £2,000 on a two-week XL villa holiday in the “sunshine state” for his family of four.

Mr Halligan found out about the firm’s collapse from friends in the UK. “We were rung early morning by friends saying XL had gone under so we proceeded to get ourselves sorted out. We got on the internet. We were lucky to be in a villa with internet access.”

He said he used contacts and took advantage of a friend’s frequent flyer status to get cheaper-than-normal Virgin flights.

Their XL flight was from Orlando Sanford International Airport but they had to travel 34 miles to Orlando International Airport to pick up their Virgin Atlantic flight.

Virgin Atlantic has said XL passengers who find themselves stuck at airports in Florida and the Caribbean will be offered special one-way fares to fly home until the end of September.

Peter Long, the chief executive of Thomson and First Choice owner TUI Travel, said the two firms would also joining the effort to help stranded passengers.

Phil Wyatt, chief executive of XL Leisure Group, described arranging flights to accommodate those affected as “the most challenging airlift that anyone has undertaken”.

In an emotional statement, Mr Wyatt said he was “devastated” at the company’s collapse and apologised to his customers and employees.

Speaking at a press conference at the Hilton Hotel at Gatwick Airport, XL’s chief executive said: “Ultimately I blame myself, I’m the CEO, I take legal responsibility for it.”

But he added that the withdrawal of support from lenders had left them with no option than to call in administrators.

Mr Wyatt said: “We have made every effort to refinance the principal debt of the group but, despite significant interest, the group was unsuccessful.

More recently, record oil prices and a worsening economic environment has meant our economic requirements have increased and our efforts have been overwhelmed.”

He expressed his “gratitude” to XL’s 1,700 staff, who will now face an uncertain future.

The collapse of XL Leisure Group prompted a prediction by Willie Walsh, British Airways chief executive, that another 30 airlines would go out of business within the next four months.

Administrators now have an uphill battle to save the profitable part of the firm. Stuart Mackellar, a partner at Kroll appointed as joint administrator, said: “We are not thinking about liquidation at the moment. We are thinking about a rescue plan for the survival of parts of the business.”

XL’s administrators said most people who booked holidays with the troubled tour operator should be eligible for a refund.

Those who paid by credit card or used a tour operator affiliated to the Atol scheme should get their money back.

Free Air tickets for jailed Sri lankan Domestic helpers in Bahrain

Sri Lankan Government has pledged to pay for the air tickets of female workers returning home from Bahrain’s prisons. Migrant Workers Protection Society (MWPS) action committee head Marietta Dias said the vow was made to the society by Sri Lankan Foreign Ministry officials.

“We have spoken with the Sri Lankan Government and they have said they will arrange the air tickets for the repatriation of women in prison,” she told the SecondCity News Desk.

“They told us not to pay for any more air tickets and let them know if any new cases come up.”

Dias said the Sri Lankan Government had also agreed to fund the air tickets of runaway housemaids Ismail Nisvika, 26, and Chitra Kodikara, 35, who have been staying at the MWPS shelter for several months.

Dias said she had no idea why the Government suddenly decided to take financial responsibility for female prisoners, or how the plan would work.

But she welcomed the offer to improve the support available to the 12,000-strong Sri Lankan population in Bahrain.

“It is a step in the right direction because it is becoming too expensive for us to buy tickets for these people,” Dias said.

The Sri Lankan Embassy in Kuwait looks after the affairs of its citizens in Bahrain, although some visa and consular services are offered through honorary Consul-General P B Higgoda at the Sri Lanka Club.

Meanwhile, Dias said the number of housemaids of all nationalities running away from their sponsors was on the rise and called for the recruitment of highly-skilled workers.

“It is a fact that more are running away and we have noticed that,” she said.

“Many have never dealt with household gadgets and equipment and are not used to the size of the houses.

“It is unfair to the sponsors also, as they see that these people are not capable and there is also the language and cultural barrier,” she added.

Related Story: The Media Line: THE PLIGHT OF SRI LANKA’S ENSLAVED MOTHERS, DAUGHTERS AND SISTERS

Travel agent’s trial date vacated as defense looks at options

The Fallon (Fallon is a city in Churchill County, located in western Nevada, United States) travel agent accused of embezzling money from more than 30 people had her scheduled trial date of Sept. 15 vacated Tuesday morning.

Cynthia Lea Holland-Taylor, 60, is charged with 36 crimes, including 16 counts of embezzlement, 16 counts of use of a personal identification and two counts fraud of credit.

District Judge David Huff set a Sept. 2 status hearing with Holland-Taylor in which she could change her plea again.

District Attorney Art Mallory said his office is not changing its position, but added the defense is re-evaluating the case and the not guilty plea.

Mallory said the state wants Holland-Taylor – if convicted Ð to be sent to the Nevada State Prison for the crimes.

He said the eliminated trial date leads him to believe there is a good possibility Holland-Taylor will enter a plea on Sept. 12. If she does not, a new trial date would have to be scheduled.

While the jury trial was scheduled for Sept. 15-26, her attorney, Paul Drakulich has said he doubted the case would go to trial, adding he thought there would be a resolution before then.

The charges against Holland-Taylor stem from her business, Cindy’s Travel Unlimited, in which she allegedly double-billed some customers and took payments for tickets never purchased.

She allegedly received $19,000 in tickets from Blue Sky Travel but never paid for them.

Holland-Taylor is also charged with issuing a bad check, which carries a prison sentence of one to four years and a $5,000 fine.

The embezzlement charges carry penalties of one to 10 years in the Nevada State Prison on each count, and the sentences would double for any victim who is an elderly person. According to the application for the arrest warrant, many of the alleged victims are more than 60 years old.

Obtaining and using false identities of others carries a sentence up to 20 years in the Nevada State Prison and a $100,000 fine, while the fraudulent credit card offenses carry a sentence of one to six years on each

Holland-Taylor remains free on a bail of $167,500.

Tensions run high in Seoul as South Korean tourist dies

Seoul has condemned the killing of a South Korean tourist by a North Korean soldier, saying it cannot be justified, and demanding access to investigate the tragedy.

Pyongyang has expressed regret but refused to apologise over the death of the 53-year-old woman, who was shot twice after straying into a military zone during a dawn beach stroll at a North Korean resort.

“Whatever the reason may be, it cannot be justified,” the South Korean government said Sunday, urging the North to cooperate with an investigation after Pyongyang refused access to the scene of the shooting.

“It is the position of our government and people that the reason and truth should be thoroughly revealed because this is a grave issue concerning the life and safety of an innocent civilian,” Seoul said in a statement.

“We urge North Korea to take responsible steps so that such an incident should not repeated.”

South Korea has suspended tours to the scenic east coast resort of Mount Kumgang, opened in 1998 as a symbol of reconciliation, and the tragedy has heightened tensions between the two neighbours.

The North described the suspension of tours, which have earned it millions of dollars over the years, as an “intolerable insult” and said it would refuse to accept South Korean tourists until it received an apology.

South Korea’s President Lee Myung-Bak condemned the killing, while North Korea blamed the South for the incident.

The North said the tourist had gone “beyond the clearly marked boundary fence” and intruded deep into the military-controlled area.

It said she fled when challenged and did not stop even when the soldier discharged warning shots, forcing him to open fire.

There is lot of Controversy also going on over the exact time of killing. According to the witnesses, South Korean tourist was shot at a North Korean resort at 5:20 a.m., not 4:50 a.m., as North Korea had claimed earlier.

“I heard the gunshots when I came out of Haegeumgang Hotel and went to the beachside for a walk,” Yonhap News quoted the witness identified only as Lee as saying.

Park Wang-ja, a 53-year-old South Korean female, was shot dead early Friday by an unidentified number of North Korean soldiers during her visit to the Mt. Geumgang resort on the east coast of North Korea. She had been taking a pre-dawn stroll on a beach near the resort before she was shot.

Lee was on a separate organized tour of Mt. Geumgang with Park, as Park stayed at a different hotel, called Beach Hotel. The distance between the two hotels is a 10-minute walk, Yonhap reported quoting South Korean authorities.

North Korea claimed that the woman crossed deep into a fenced-off military area, but fled toward her hotel when the soldier ordered her to halt. The communist country said she was killed at 4:50 a.m.

“I came out of the hotel where I was staying at 5:00 a.m. and came back at 5:40. I walked the esplanade at an even speed, so I think it was around 5:20.
“The sun had already come up. When I went back to the hotel, the tour guide told me, ‘It is a sunny day.'”

Another witness, Lee In-bok, said last week he heard two gunshots and a scream five to 10 minutes after seeing a middle-aged woman dressed in black strolling along the beach early Friday.