Hi Kate,

I am writing in regards to the investigation concerning Virgin Atlantic flight VS001 on June 22, 2010. Below is a detailed description of events. Given my profession as a journalist, I took notes during the ordeal.

Virgin Flight VS 001 was scheduled to leave at 16:20 UK time (11:20 U.S. time) on Tuesday, June 22, 2010. At 15:30 a flight agent informed passengers in the boarding area that boarding would be delayed due to the extreme temperature inside of the plane. Over the microphone, the flight agent stated that “it [was] 40 degrees [Celcius] and passengers could not board” until the temperature dropped. At this point, not even cabin crew were permitted on board.

Fifteen minutes later, cabin crew were allowed on the aircraft; but at 16:05, the same flight agent returned for an update and reiterated that the temperature was “still at 40,” that “the cause was unknown,” and that boarding would be delayed by at least another 20 minutes. After the sympathetic flight agent returned a third time around 16:30 to apologize again, at 17:00 a different (and sterner) flight agent stated “Virgin Atlantic flight VS001 [was] now ready for boarding.”

According to the new flight agent, the temperature had not changed inside the aircraft, but boarding would proceed. Passengers were ominously handed bottles of water before entering the plane.

The plane was stifling. Though it only took 25 minutes to completely board the plane, two passengers with checked bags failed to board. We had to wait for these passengers and the unloading of their bags for another 35 minutes. In total, passengers waited impatiently in the heat for approximately a little more than one hour. The pilot and flight crew apologized repeatedly for the situation. Once, the aircraft doors were closed, it was announced that a total of 295 passengers and 5 infants were on board.

Once airborne, the air began to flow; and we flew comfortably for around 7 hours.

About 19:40 US time, the pilot said that because of bad weather Newark airport was closed and that we would divert to “Bradley Airfield” (not airport) and then return to Newark when the bad weather subsided.

We landed at Bradley airport in Connecticut at 20:30 US TIME, positioned at the end of the tarmac. As soon as the engines had been turned off, the temperature began to rise again. Within minutes, the power on the plane failed, leaving us in darkness. In 20 minutes the plane’s temperature felt identical to the sauna-like temperatures upon boarding, around 40 Celcius (108 Farenheit).

The events that followed were confusing for passengers. The information we were given via the pilot’s announcements and flight crew announcements seemed incoherent and bizarre. First we were told that the power unit had to be replaced to get power back on board. Additionally, we needed to refuel to get to Newark. This began to cause speculation as to why we had even landed at Bradley. Most of us had spoken to relatives at Newark via cell phone, who told us that everything in Newark was fine. Passengers began wondering if the plane was short on fuel or if something else had prompted our landing at Bradley.

The replacement power unit was installed but then “caught on fire” according to the pilot, leaving us in darkness again. Passengers were instructed to remain seated since refueling was taking place. The pilot stated that there were “issues with refueling” but did not elaborate. Nearly one hour later, the pilot said that fuel had been “placed in the wrong tank.” At this point, nearly two hours after we landed, the heat was really starting to affect people. Oxygen was being administered. Babies were screaming and crying. Old people were feeling faint. The baby in front of us was naked, bright red, and screaming. Some flight attendants were attempting to cool the baby down with cold towels, but other flight attendants seemed to have disappeared during the entire incident. During these first two hours (and even during the next 2.5 hours), passengers were not even offered water.

As passengers continued to sweat, burn up, and grow impatient, the pilot said that we had to wait for the fuel situation to be rectified. Soon after the pilot told us that the flight hours of the crew and pilots were about to end, even beyond their 2-hour margin, and that the flight would indeed terminate at Bradley. We were told that buses would come take us from the tarmac to the immigration and customs building shortly. The flight crew also announced that Virgin would provide accommodation for passengers and that ground handling agents would also help us re-arrange our forward journey, plans, and New York hotel/car/onward flight cancellations (even though Virgin did not have any of its own staff working Bradley).

The buses never arrived, and the pilot exited the plane to work on a solution. After passengers had been locked in the plane for 3. 5 hours in the potentially deadly heat, the pilot returned and said we would move the plane to the building since buses could not be arranged. When the pilot attempted to start the plane, the engines failed. He announced the engine failure over the loudspeaker, apologized profusely, and said that in his entire career as a pilot, he had never had a day like this one. He also said that we did not deserve what we had endured and that we had every right to be upset and frustrated.

But at this point, the pilot’s apologies were not enough. People were feeling extremely ill and faint. We felt our rights as passengers had been violated being held against our will. Several elderly passengers were complaining of shortness of breath and worrying about potential heart attacks. Meanwhile, the flight crew’s attitude did not match the pilot’s. Flight crew were more concerned with themselves and their discomfort than passengers. While the pilot apologized repeatedly and took a very sympathetic tone with passengers, the flight crew were unavailable and often downright rude! It should be noted that the head flight attendant, Rebecca, disappeared during this entire ordeal. In my class, premium economy, passenger complaints, concerns and frustrations were met with a classless, “I can’t be bothered” attitude from flight attendants. Attempting to assuage the misery, at two brief points, the pilot ordered two of the aircraft doors open to try and improve air circulation on the plane. However, this only brought cool area to the immediate area in front of the doors (though it did allow infants and elders to get a few minutes of fresh air).

After four hours and thirty minutes (between 12:45 and 1AM), passengers were finally going to be let off the plane. As passengers lined up, a woman collapsed and began have seizures. A man said he thought he was having a heart attack. Several people, including myself, felt exceptionally claustrophobic and anxious. The scene was again dramatic and scary.

Two tiny Hertz buses were waiting at the bottom of the wet stairway to transport passengers from the tarmac to the arrivals area, about 1-2 dozen at a time. Passengers exited the plane in the rain and arrived in the immigration hall in small batches. Several passengers were taken away in ambulances.

Between 1AM and 3:30AM, passengers sat in the immigration hall with few updates. We were told that customs could not process us because there was no one to take our bags off the plane. Passengers were processed from 3:30AM to 5:30AM.

As one of the first passengers through customs, I met with the flight crew upon collecting my bags. Two of the girls, including Rebecca, said they “could not help us any longer.” The told us that the situation was “not their fault. It was an Act of God. [They] cannot control the weather.” But what about the fact that plane had problems before take off and several things went wrong with the plane upon landing. That was and is Virgin’s fault!

The staff were attempting to wash their hands clean of the entire situation. I asked about the promised accommodations, about missing my connecting flight, and help re-organizing my onward journey. I was told that since no Virgin employees work at Bradley, I would receive no help. This IS NOT what we were told on the plane! There was one flight attendant (a heavy set flamboyant male) who did the best he could to help passengers. The rest of his team, however, sat on the other side of the arrivals hall, away from passengers, avoiding them at all costs. The situation had gone from ridiculous to even more ridiculous. At 3:40 AM, the flight crew and pilot left in a bus shortly, leaving passengers STRANDED at Bradley, with ONE ground agent trying to take care of 300 passengers. The Virgin staff had not made any announcements since leaving the aircraft and kept passengers uninformed and confused after collecting bags. This was DISPICABLE!

The ground agent arranged for several passengers to rest in the lobby of the Bradley Airport Sheraton Hotel. 57 passengers, including me, boarded the ONE BUS for Newark, which left at 3:57AM and arrived at Newark at 6:55 AM, with no Virgin staff to greet us or take care of us in Newark. Other passengers remained in Bradley airport to late the next morning and early afternoon.

I had personally begun my journey in Dubai on another Virgin flight and was simply connecting in London and then New York to reach my intended destination – my home in Fort Lauderdale. By the time I reached my destination and went through costly efforts to still get down to Fort Lauderdale the next day, I had not slept in 40 hours. I was exhausted and unable to work for several days. The experience threw me off for a good week.

In total, the situation was inexcusable. We should not have been held against our will for 4.5 hours on the tarmac in the treacherous heat. The airline put passengers’ physical and mental health in a very compromising situation. The airline also made false promises to help passengers once off the aircraft. We were not offered food and water during our 4.5 hours on the tarmac.

Two weeks later, I have not been contacted by the airline in any form whatsoever with an apology or offer of compensation. I read that Virgin customer service emailed the AP that passengers would receive a free ticket. I wrote the Virgin press office about this and am waiting to hear back.

The airlines should be required to have a contingency plan in place so that this does not happen again. Additionally, I hope that this is an impetus for the new passenger’s rights law to apply to international carriers such as Virgin Atlantic.

Please do not hesitate to contact me for further information.

Kind regards,

Paul Rubio
Freelance writer
Winner 2010 NATJA Award – Best Travel Guide
Winner 2010 NATJA Award – Best Local Lifestyles article