Virgin Atlantic in emergency landing at Gatwick

AT LEAST 10,000 passengers flying to and from Gatwick had their flights cancelled when the airport's single runway closed following an emergency landing. A Virgin Atlantic Boeing 747 returned to the Sussex airport for a "non-standard landing procedure".

The Jumbo jet, flight number VS43, had taken off at 11.44am for the 5,200-mile flight to Las Vegas, with an estimated 450 passengers on board.

The flight crew became aware of a problem with the landing gear soon after take-off. The aircraft flew circuits over southern England while burning fuel to reduce its weight, and made two low-altitude passes over Gatwick for visual inspection of the undercarriage.

The aircraft landed safely shortly before 4pm, with emergency vehicles in attendance. Nick Hughes, a passenger on the aircraft, told BBC Radio 5 Live: "Initially they didn't reveal everything to the passengers. After we'd circled a few times you got the sense things weren't quite right. They gave every opportunity for the landing gear to open, but unfortunately it never did.

"The actual landing was one of the softest landings I'd ever had. The crew were exemplary."

The aircraft remained on the runway for more than three hours after the landing, closing the airport to arrivals and departures.

Gatwick is the busiest single-runway airport in the world, with up to 900 departures and arrivals per day. It is the busiest base for easyJet, Britain's biggest airline by passenger numbers.

A dozen arriving easyJet flights were diverted to airports from Southend to Bristol. The airline cancelled 34 departures from Gatwick, and the corresponding inbound flights.

British Airways arrivals were diverted to Bournemouth, Southampton. Other BA flights are being held at airports in Europe for the runway to be cleared.

Twelve BA European departures to and from Gatwick have so far been cancelled, as well as a Flybe round-trip to Newquay.

No cash compensation is due to passengers whose flights are cancelled or heavily delayed, because the event counts as an "extraordinary circumstance".

But the airlines have a duty of care to passengers - providing meals and, if necessary, overnight accommodation - until they can get passengers to their destinations.

At this time of year, many flights are fully booked, leaving no space for passengers whose flights were cancelled.

A Gatwick spokesman said: "We are working with our airline partners to provide food, drink and welfare facilities for those passengers whose flights may either have been delayed or cancelled."

Hotel rooms in the Gatwick area are in short supply tonight. The Virgin Atlantic passengers are being accommodated overnight before a replacement aircraft departs at around 11am tomorrow.

A full complement of Virgin Atlantic passengers are waiting at Las Vegas for the delayed flight.

In November 1997, a Virgin Atlantic Airbus A340 made an emergency landing at Heathrow after a flight from Los Angeles when part of the undercarriage failed to deploy.

Of the 114 passengers and crew on board, nine needed treatment for minor injuries sustained in the evacuation.