A Virgin flight was forced to turn around 40 minutes into its journey after it was discovered the co-pilot wasn’t properly trained.
Passengers were reportedly left fuming after a Virgin Atlantic flight to New York was forced to turn back to London when it became apparent that the co-pilot was not qualified to fly because he had not completed his final assessment.
The Airbus A330 was about 40 minutes into its flight to JFK Airport on Monday when the two pilots became aware of what the airline later called a “rostering error”, the New York Post reports.
The captain is not a designated trainer and was not qualified to fly with a co-pilot who had not completed Virgin Atlantic training protocols, according to the airline.
After returning to Heathrow, the first officer was swapped and the flight resumed his journey to the Big Apple, where he landed two hours and 40 minutes late.
Sources told The Post that both initial crew members were fully licensed and qualified — with the captain described as “highly experienced” with “many thousands of hours of flight time during 17 years at Virgin Atlantic.”
The first officer, who joined the airline in 2017, was pending a “final assessment” flight.
Virgin Atlantic blamed the snafu on a “rostering error” involving Flight VS3.
“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,” a rep told The Post.
But the cockpit conundrum didn’t sit well with the passengers, who were forced to wait on the tarmac at Heathrow while a replacement co-pilot was found, the Daily Mail reported.
The passengers also were not compensated for the delay because it is only provided if a flight arrives four hours late and the company is responsible, according to the outlet.
Julie and Marc Vincent, a couple from Bournemouth in the UK, described how the about-turn unfolded.
“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,” Julie told the Daily Mail.
“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,” she said.
“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,” Julie continued.
She said “panic did set in on-board,” with some passengers pacing up and down the plane to try to get more information.
Meanwhile, fight attendants began serving the in-flight meals to the passengers on the tarmac, she said.
“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,” Julie said.
“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 realize that the holdup was due to the first officer not having completed his training. Incredible,” she added.
Another passenger said the pilot tried to allay concerns.
“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,’” Mary Ingram told the Daily Mail.
“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,” Ingram continued.
Meanwhile, 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,” the person told the outlet.
The Civil Aviation Authority said in a statement that “Virgin Atlantic have made us aware of the incident. Both pilots were suitably licensed and qualified to undertake the flight.”
Virgin Atlantic reiterated to The Post that “to be completely clear — both pilots were fully licensed and qualified to operate the aircraft.”
But spokesperson Grace Peatey said in an email that “it is correct to say that flight VS3 operating from Heathrow to New York-JFK on Monday 2 May returned to Heathrow after it was established that the Captain was not designated trainer status.
“The pairing of pilots was not in breach of any aviation or safety regulations, but it wasn’t compliant with Virgin Atlantic’s internal training protocols, hence our decision to turn back,” she added.
Sources said the airline’s “final assessment flight” is a company requirement to ensure that a pilot uses the carrier’s specific methodology.
This co-pilot was recommended as ready for the final assessment on his previous flight after completing 12 recent flights on the A330, according to airline sources.
“We apologize for any inconvenience caused to our customers who arrived 2 hours 40 minutes later than scheduled as a result of the crew change,” the airline said.
This article was originally published by the New York Post and reproduced with permission