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Last Updated: Saturday, 20 December, 2003, 15:42 GMT
Pilot charged over drink claim
Captain Richard Harwell
Airport staff allegedly detected alcohol on Captain Harwell's breath

A Virgin Atlantic pilot has been charged with trying to fly a plane packed with hundreds of passengers after drinking.

Captain Richard Harwell, 55, was arrested on Friday night shortly before he was due to fly thousands of miles across the Atlantic from Washington DC to Heathrow.

Captain Harwell, who is American but lives with his family in the UK, was held after airport staff allegedly detected alcohol on his breath as he underwent routine pre-flight security checks.

The 383 stranded passengers on board last night's flight VS22 were put up in hotels until a new crew could be found.

They are expected to fly out at 18.15 local time on Saturday night (2315 GMT), arriving on Sunday morning.

A spokeswoman for Dulles airport in Washington said security officials alerted a Virgin supervisor having observed Mr Harwell passing through the ticket counter area.

Virgin Atlantic had to tell us what exactly was the problem, but it took a long time
Peter Markham
Virgin Atlantic passenger
A Virgin Atlantic spokesman said Mr Harwell had been with the airline 14 years and had an "unblemished record".

He said: "Everyone at Virgin Atlantic is shocked and surprised. This is unprecedented - it's the first time it has happened in the 20 years we've been operating.

"We are at a loss to explain what has happened."

Virgin Atlantic told the BBC it operated a strict no-alcohol policy and an internal inquiry was being started.

Bail

Captain Harwell was escorted off the plane by Metropolitan Washington Airport Authority Police and charged with attempting to operate an aircraft while under the influence of alcohol.

A Virgin spokesman said he was still in custody and the issue of bail would be established later.

"We will be talking to him and the authorities over the coming weeks to find out what has happened," he added.

Stranded passenger Peter Markham told BBC News: "First we were told it was a security problem and then that catering services were a bit late.

"The passengers took that for a little while but eventually they began to realise there was more to it and Virgin Atlantic had to tell us what exactly was the problem, but it took a long time."

Virgin Atlantic spokesman Paul Moore said: "The safety and security of our passengers at Virgin Atlantic is our paramount priority."




WATCH AND LISTEN
The BBC's Paul Anstiss
"The 55 year old was breathalysed and charged"



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