Passengers reveal how Virgin Atlantic jet turned back over pilot error

We WEREN’T told our co-pilot was an unqualified rookie: Fuming passengers on aborted Virgin flight to New York say cabin crew blamed 180-turn back to Heathrow on an ‘administrative error’ – and they WON’T get refunds

  • Virgin Atlantic A330 from Heathrow to New York was forced to return to London while en route to the US
  • The plane was over Ireland when the captain was told that the first officer had not completed his training
  • Jet which can carry nearly 300 passengers had to wait on runway while qualified replacement was found
  • Airline said issue was due to rota mistake and apologised, but insisted safety had not been compromised 
  • ** Were you on Virgin Atlantic flight VS3 from LHR to JFK on Monday? Please email: [email protected] ** 

Passengers today told MailOnline of their frustration after a Virgin Atlantic flight to New York was forced to turn back to London Heathrow just 40 minutes in after the co-pilot admitted he hadn’t passed his last flying test.

The plane was over Ireland when the captain was told that the first officer had not completed his training. The Airbus A330 was ordered to return to Heathrow and passengers were told it was due to an ‘administrative error’.

Those on board landed in the US two hours and 40 minutes later than planned after the jet – which can carry nearly 300 passengers – was forced to wait on the runway at Heathrow while a qualified replacement was found.

But all the passengers missed out on compensation – which is only payable for routes over 3,500km (Heathrow to JFK is 5,540km, or 3,440 miles) if you arrive four hours late at your destination and the airline is responsible. 

Travellers told MailOnline that they only found out today about the issue with the co-pilot. Virgin assured them at the time that safety was not compromised, with both pilots fully licensed and qualified to operate the aircraft.

The co-pilot needed a ‘final assessment flight’ with a training captain to be able to fly in line with Virgin Atlantic policy. His role as first officer meant he was responsible for maintaining the safety of the flight. 

As a qualified pilot, first officers are also meant to support the captain with communicating with air traffic control and flying the plane. While the pairing of pilots was not in breach of any aviation or safety regulations, it did not comply with Virgin Atlantic’s internal training protocols, which is why the flight was turned back. 

Julie and Marc Vincent from Bournemouth were on board the flight and told MailOnline how staff blamed the situation on a clerical error. Mrs Vincent said: ‘We’d just cleared the west coast of Ireland when the captain announced ‘you may have noticed that we have conducted a 180 degree turn’ before telling us that we were returning to Heathrow due to an ‘administration error’ and that they needed to get some paperwork signed off legally to be able to continue our journey. 

The Virgin Atlantic Airbus A330 plane is pictured before leaving London Heathrow Airport for the first time on Monday

A view on board the Virgin Atlantic plane after it had touched back down again at London Heathrow Airport on Monday

‘We landed back at Heathrow and were naturally concerned as you would expect that a large, long-established company such as Virgin needed to get their paperwork in order. 

‘I was also upset at losing holiday time as my husband and I were only in New York for three nights. We asked what was going on numerous times and all we were told was that it wasn’t legal for us to be in the air and that we needed to return so an engineer could deem us fit to fly. They said it was a problem with paperwork that needed attention from ground staff.

‘Panic did set in onboard particularly when upon landing people jumped out of their seats and started to pace up and down wanting more information. At least three people in high vis vests entered the cockpit for an amount of time before curtains were drawn to hide our view. 

‘We were kept on the plane and offered plastic cups of water while we waited for an update. One of the cabin crew very loudly communicated from one end to the other to say that two ovens were not working.

‘The decision was taken and announced to us that the airline was going to feed us our in-flight meal on the ground. They started to serve first class passengers with just one trolley, which took a long time, but before we could be served, the plane took off again.

‘If they had continued to feed us all as promised, we would have been outside of the four-hour delay compensation window and Virgin would have had to pay greater compensation to each passenger. Only this morning did I realise that the hold-up was due to the first officer not having completed his training. Incredible.’

Julie and Marc Vincent from Bournemouth were on board the flight and told how staff blamed the situation on a clerical error

Passengers were also faced with delays at passport control after landing at New York John F Kennedy airport on Monday

Another passenger, Mary Ingram, added: ‘We had all settled down, boots off, halfway into our first film, with the smell of dinner floating through the cabin when an announcement was made by the pilot saying, ‘Some of you have noticed from the flight tracker map that we have made a 180 degree turn and are returning to Heathrow.  Don’t be alarmed, but we are having to return to Heathrow due to an administrative error.’ 

‘The passengers behaved very calmly with no overt frustration or anger. It was unknown what the real cause of the return to Heathrow was, because clearly Virgin would not want to incur the loss of a returned, and therefore delayed, flight due to a paperwork administrative error.

‘There was a certain amount of concern that something may have been wrong with the plane, so on landing we were all relieved when that went smoothly. It didn’t help that the pilot or co-pilot told us to note our nearest exit in the pre-landing announcement.

‘We were not allowed off the plane while we sat on the Tarmac for what was about another half an hour for re-fuelling, and what I now know replacement of the co-pilot.’

The Airbus A330, just 40 minutes into its flight to New York, was ordered to return to Heathrow while flying over Ireland

And a source told The Sun: ‘You could have cut the tension in the cockpit with a knife. The plane got as far as Ireland and then they found out the first officer was still in training.

‘The skipper had no choice but to go back to Heathrow and find a more experienced member of the crew. It was embarrassing for everyone and the passengers were furious.’ 

A Virgin Atlantic spokesman told MailOnline: ‘Due to a rostering error, flight VS3 from London Heathrow to New York-JFK returned to Heathrow on Monday, May 2 shortly after take-off.

‘The qualified first officer, who was flying alongside an experienced captain, was replaced with a new pilot to ensure full compliance with Virgin Atlantic’s training protocols, which exceed industry standards.

‘We apologise for any inconvenience caused to our customers who arrived two hours, 40 minutes later than scheduled as a result of the crew change.’ 

The Virgin Atlantic flight to New York was on an Airbus A330 but was forced to turn back to London Heathrow (file picture)

Sources told MailOnline that the captain on the aircraft had been with Virgin Atlantic for 17 years and had completed thousands of hours of flight time.

Wizz Air flies 3.6million passengers in April amid 500% annual increase 

Low-cost European airline Wizz Air saw a more than 500 per cent increase in the number of passengers carried in April as the recovery in the travel sector picked up pace.

The Hungarian airline, which is listed in London, said it carried 3.6million passengers last month, up 542 per cent on the 564,634 who flew with the group a year ago when the coronavirus pandemic and restrictions hammered demand.

Wizz Air recently bought extra slots at Luton Airport from Vueling, boosting services on existing routes to Romania and Poland and adding another 167,000 seats.

It said it now has more than 5.6 million seats available on flights for the summer season, with new routes across its network from Italy, the UK, Romania, Poland, Lithuania and Bosnia and Hercegovina to destinations across Europe. New routes offer destinations in Greece, Germany, Denmark and Croatia.

The first officer joined in 2017 and had been trained, fully licensed and fully type-rated in accordance with UK regulations, but was still pending a ‘final assessment’ flight with Virgin Atlantic.

The flight took off from Heathrow at 9.41am on Monday, before the turnback was initiated at 10.19am, and it then landed back at Heathrow at 11.12am. 

Sources added that Virgin Atlantic has since reviewed its internal processes and updated them in an effort to avoid the same thing happening again.

A Civil Aviation Authority spokesman said: ‘Virgin Atlantic have made us aware of the incident. Both pilots were suitably licensed and qualified to undertake the flight.’ 

To be qualified to fly the aircraft, an individual must hold an aircraft type rating and a valid licence proficiency check, which the first officer held. 

With the type rating and licence proficiency check, a pilot can legally and safely operate the aircraft in any geographical area worldwide. 

Virgin Atlantic devises a line training programme, and it trains these procedures in the first eight flights.

The ‘final assessment flight’ is a company requirement from Virgin Atlantic to ensure that the employee operates using its specific methodology. 

The staff member in question was recommended as ready for his final assessment flight on their previous flight, having completed 12 recent flights on the A330 after his complete simulator and class room training programme.

He was therefore deemed as safe and competent to operate the flight, but the decision for the aircraft to return to Heathrow was made based on Virgin’s internal compliance requirements. 

** Were you on Virgin Atlantic flight VS3 from LHR to JFK on Monday? Please email: [email protected] ** 

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