A 47-year-old Virgin Atlantic captain was arrested at London Heathrow Airport under suspicion of being intoxicated just 30 minutes before he was scheduled to pilot a New York-bound jet Saturday morning, officials said.
Officers from Scotland Yard said they were tipped off by airport security staff, who smelled alcohol on the pilot's breath. Police rushed aboard the plane, handcuffed the man and escorted him out of the cockpit in front of passengers.
Virgin Atlantic has not released the pilot's name or the particular flight on which he was arrested. The incident occurred a half hour before the U.K.-based company's 9:30 a.m. flight was scheduled to leave Terminal 3.
The pilot, who has not been formally charged, was already onboard the flight and would have been in the cockpit conducting preflight checks, according to Virgin spokeswoman Anna Knowles. Neither the airline nor Scotland Yard would comment on the number of officers involved in the arrest or how many passengers were onboard. A replacement pilot was provided for the flight, which departed about one hour late.
Virgin said it has a well-established policy on alcohol consumption, which prohibits staff members from consuming any alcohol in the eight hours before the flight, and they may drink only small to moderate amounts in the 24 hours leading up to the flight. Company policy complies with the U.K.'s Railways and Transport Safety Act of 2003 and extends to virtually all Virgin staff.
"We are the only U.K. airline with a random-testing policy," Knowles told ABC News. "Testing includes all crew and operations staff, engineers and mechanics, as well as baggage personnel." Tests are immediate and on the spot while a staff member is on duty, she said.
Virgin Atlantic refused to said just how "over the limit" the captain was, since "being drunk and being over the limit allowed for flight and operating crew are two different things," Knowles said. The limit for flying is 9 micrograms per 100 milliliters of breath, while the limit for drivers of cars in Great Britain is 35 micrograms.
The airline, which is run by Richard Branson, said it has placed the captain on suspended pay until the results of a blood test are returned. If he is found guilty, he would face a court case and immediate dismissal, Knowles said. The pilot was released on bail pending further investigation.
In 2003, when a similar incident occurred, no criminal charges were brought against the airline or the pilot, although the pilot involved in the incident resigned.
According to a spokesman for Scotland Yard, the pilot is scheduled to report to a police station in May.