American police yesterday charged a Virgin Atlantic airline pilot who was marched off his plane under suspicion of drinking shortly before he was due to fly nearly 400 passengers to London.
Captain Richard Harwell, 55, an American who lives in Britain, was charged with attempting to operate an aircraft while under the influence of alcohol. He was arrested on Friday night at Washington Dulles airport.
His 383 passengers were put up in hotels overnight after flight VS22 to Heathrow was cancelled. They were due to arrive in London last night.
A Virgin Atlantic spokesman said yesterday: "We can confirm that one of our pilots has been detained by Metropolitan Washington Airport Authority Police Department on suspicion of being under the influence of alcohol."
A spokesman for the airline said Capt Harwell had been with the airline 14 years and had an "unblemished record".
"Everyone at Virgin Atlantic is shocked and surprised," the spokesman said. "This is the first time this has happened in the 20 years we've been operating. This is totally out of character for Capt Harwell, who is an extremely experienced and popular pilot."
Capt Harwell was still in custody yesterday and the issue of bail would be established later, the spokesman said.
The airline has started an internal inquiry into the incident. "We will be talking to him and the authorities over the coming weeks to find out what has happened," the spokesman said. "The safety and security of our passengers at Virgin Atlantic is our paramount priority, and we operate a strict no-alcohol policy in relation to safety and operational areas. The pilot has been stood down from duty and will face an internal inquiry."
Allegations of a heavy drinking culture have dogged the airline industry over the past few years. Only last month, two British Airways pilots resigned after being arrested in Oslo on suspicion of being drunk shortly before they were due to fly to Heathrow.
Fourteen British Airways staff were suspended and two later dismissed after a Channel 4 Dispatches programme carried out an undercover investigation three years ago, which showed crews drinking only hours before flights.
In July, figures released by the US Civil Aviation Authority revealed that 22 American airline pilots had failed random pre-flight breath tests in 2002, compared with nine in 2001. Of the 10,000 commercial pilots in Britain, 12 to 15 a year lose their licence because of alcohol abuse.
The rules were tightened in September under the Railways and Transport and Safety Act. Pilots are now only allowed to have up to 20mg of alcohol per 100ml of blood. This is the equivalent of drinking half a pint of beer, which is a quarter of the limit for drivers.