Hostage on a nightmare flight

By | April 28th, 2005

Q: I recently flew from London to Washington on Virgin Atlantic with my daughter. We boarded on time but then waited for an hour for “late passengers.”

I can deal with a one-hour delay. But what happened next, I can’t.

We took off and were about an hour into the flight when a rather breathless pilot announced that he had “turned off an engine because the reverse thruster has malfunctioned.” He said we were returning to Heathrow.

The plane landed safely and we were greeted by the fire brigade. We complied with the crew’s instructions at all times. But then the flight attendants warned us against using our cell phones, saying it could “interfere with the signals to the pilot.” On the other flights I’ve taken, you can certainly use your phones when the plane has stopped taxiing.

We could not even get up to use the bathroom. We were trapped on the tarmac, on a plane that didn’t work, without food or water.

When we finally got moving again, several hours later, our aircraft narrowly avoided a collision with an Aer Lingus jet.

To make the situation worse, the pilot repeatedly gave incorrect information about all matter of subjects. An example: “It is now 6 p.m. We are sorry that there will be no coffee but we just realized that we are to land in 20 minutes. It is 8 p.m. in Washington.”

Between the screaming, frightened people around us and the total ineptness of the pilots, it was the most hair-raising experience I’ve ever had. I believe Virgin Atlantic owes us the return portion of our ticket or at the very least a voucher considering that we were held hostage on a malfunctioning plane with a pilot who was clearly out of his element. Do you feel that this is fair?

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— Susan Fallon
Chevy Chase, Md.

A: Sounds like a dreadful experience. And it also seems as if a lot of things went wrong — and I’m not just talking about the engine trouble.

But let’s take a closer look at your laundry list of mishaps. The one-hour delay for passengers was out of the ordinary. Normally, an airline will hold a plane for no more than 10 minutes to accommodate latecomers, even if they are VIPs who paid for premium seats.

The reverse thruster? Could have happened to any airline at any time. The pilot did the right thing by returning to London, and as best I can tell, he followed procedure (although the crew was clearly shaken by the experience, according to your account).

The flight attendants were out of line by denying you the use of your cell phone and since Virgin acknowledges that the flight was delayed by three hours, the crew could have at least let you use the restrooms. (Drinks would have been nice, too, but given the situation, I wouldn’t have expected them.)

As far as the near-collision, the pilot’s explanation was that he hit a wet spot and had to come to a sudden halt, even though the runway was completely dry at the time. So we’ll just have to take his word for it.

Here’s how I would feel after enduring that flight: grateful.

Despite the broken thruster and an apparent near-miss with another plane, you are all safe. Remember, it’s a bad flight when they pull your body out of the wreckage.

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I asked Virgin Atlantic for its side of the story. The airline’s records show that your flight experienced a mechanical delay. Under the EU’s new rules, which went into effect earlier this year, you were entitled to “free meals and refreshments plus two free telephone calls, telex or fax messages, or e-mails.” But since you were stuck on a plane, Virgin couldn’t offer you any of that.

Still, I think you were entitled to something. I disagree that the airline should refund your return portion and credit you for a new flight. That’s excessive, and if all airlines were that generous they’d be bankrupt in no time.

Virgin apologized to you for the inconvenience and, as “a gesture of goodwill” enrolled you in its frequent flier program and credited you with 15,000 miles, in addition to the miles you earned from that flight.

That works for me.

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