Virgin Atlantic Flight Aborted After Pilot Found To Be ‘Untrained’

A Virgin Atlantic flight bound for New York was forced to make a u-turn back to London Heathrow after the first officer let slip to his captain that he had not passed his latest flying test.

Additionally, Virgin Atlantic managers on the ground had also realized that the first officer had not completed his final assessment. By this time, the flight was around 40 minutes into the trip and flying over Ireland. It made a safe return to Heathrow.

The flight in question

The incident happened on May 2nd on flight VS3, originally scheduled to fly from London’s Heathrow International Airport to New York John F. Kennedy International Airport. The aircraft took off from London at 09:41, and the U-turn was initiated at 10:19. The flight landed back at Heathrow at 11:12.


Operating the flight was one of Virgin Atlantic’s Airbus A330-343 aircraft registered as G-VWAG. The aircraft is approximately 9 years old and carries around 261 passengers. Once back at Heathrow, the aircraft had to wait on the runway until a qualified replacement was found.

While it might sound alarming to hear an unqualified crew member operating a flight, Virgin Atlantic has assured passengers that the breach pertained to its internal training protocols, rather than any regulatory or safety issues. Putting it simply, both pilots were fully licensed and qualified to operate the Airbus A330, just not to the standards of Virgin Atlantic, as confirmed by the Civil Aviation Authority:

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“Virgin Atlantic has made us aware of the incident. Both pilots were suitably licensed and qualified to undertake the flight.”

The captain held many thousands of flight hours during his 17 years at Virgin Atlantic but had not yet been given the designated trainer status. Photo: Airbus

Although it was the first officer who was yet to complete his final assessment, Virgin Atlantic managers also found that the highly-experienced captain was not yet qualified to be a trainer for the first officer. Eventually, the first officer was replaced with a more experienced pilot to ensure full compliance with the airline’s training protocols, and an apology was issued to its passengers:

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

Residual effects of the pandemic

In light of airlines recovering and gradually returning to the skies, it was unfortunate that Virgin Atlantic has been involved in such a mishap. While the airline reviews its internal processes to avoid a recurrence, it has blamed a “rostering issue” for what happened on VS3.

Like all the airlines worldwide, the Crawley-based carrier was hit especially hard during the COVID-19 pandemic, with flights to the US being the absolute last in its network to restart amidst tight travel restrictions. Considering that the US is one of the most vital in the airline’s network, recovery remained slow until the US finally opened its borders to British citizens in November.

Another stall from the pandemic was when an estimated 3,500 of the airline’s 10,000-strong workforce lost their jobs in the initial months after the pandemic started. It probably didn’t help that another 1,150 lost theirs in the second half of 2020.

Hiring back the numbers lost has been a struggle across the aviation industry, despite the welcoming passenger demand for travel. This is mainly due to lengthy certification processes and financial constraints, as highlighted by Martin Chalk, General Secretary of the British Airline Pilots Association:

“We suggest that this is a symptom of the strain the industry has been put under by the draconian Covid restrictions and the obvious desire of people to travel. If the support for our industry had been as generous as in other countries then the ramp-up of operations would have not stretched training systems as they currently are.”

The sacking of thousands of employees has left Virgin Atlantic with a smaller workforce to rotate through its ramped-up schedule. Photo: Tom Boon | Simple Flying

Bottom line

Given that Virgin Atlantic has not carried out any mass cancellation of flights yet despite the previous busy Easter period, it can be assumed that the airline is doing a great job of managing schedules with its current workforce. With the peak summer season approaching, the airline will need to maintain meticulous scheduling processes to avoid more incidents like VS3 occuring.

Simple Flying has reached out to Virgin Atlantic for an official statement, and will update this article upon receiving one.

Source: Daily Telegraph

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