A Virgin Atlantic flight to New York had to be turned back to Heathrow after it emerged that the co-pilot had not completed his final flying test and wasn't qualified to fly, leaving the passengers fuming. The two pilots became aware of the "rostering issue" around 40 minutes into Monday's trip to New York, according to the airline but it was a bit too late.
However, the pilot immediately took the decision to turn back the flight as he didn't feel safe with the co-pilot. The plane was rerouted to New York after Virgin Atlantic found a substitute for the first officer. The airline insisted that safety was not compromised, explaining that the first officer was hired in 2017.
The plane was over Ireland when the captain was told that the first officer had not completed his training. The Airbus A330 was forced to return to Heathrow owing to an "administrative issue," according to passengers.
According to Virgin Atlantic, the captain is not a designated trainer and was not qualified to fly with a co-pilot who had not completed Virgin Atlantic training requirements. After the jet â which can transport nearly 300 passengers â was forced to wait on the tarmac at Heathrow a certified substitute was recruited.
However, those on board arrived in the United States two hours and 40 minutes later than intended, leaving them fuming, more so because they missed out on compensation. Compensation is only payable for journeys above 3,500 miles (Heathrow to JFK is or 3,440 miles) if a customer arrives four hours late at the destination and if the airline is responsible for that.
After returning to Heathrow, the first officer was replaced, and the flight continued on to New York. A Virgin Atlantic spokesperson said: "Due to a rostering error, flight VS3 from London Heathrow to New York-JFK returned to Heathrow on Monday 2 May 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."
Virgin initially claimed that the reason behind turning back the flight was a "rostering error' and passengers came to know about the issue with the pilot only on Thursday. According to sources, both initial crew members were fully licensed and qualified, with the captain characterized as "very experienced" with "many thousands of hours of flight time during 17 years at Virgin Atlantic."
The co-pilot was also fully qualified under UK aviation regulations, Virgin Atlantic said, but he had not completed a final assessment flight that was part of the airline's internal requirements although he had joined the airlines in 2017.
First officers are trained pilots who assist the captain in communicating with air traffic control and operating the plane. While the pilot pairing did not violate any aviation or safety standards, it did not adhere to Virgin Atlantic's internal training protocols, which resulted in the flight being cancelled.
Julie and Marc Vincent, a British couple from Bournemouth, recalled the dramatic change of events.
"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.
According to sources, Virgin Atlantic has now examined and improved its internal systems in order to avoid a repeat of the incident.