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Plane's emergency prompts Gatwick to suspend flights

By Nick Thompson, CNN
April 16, 2012 -- Updated 1731 GMT (0131 HKT)
A Virgin Atlantic aircraft stands on the tarmac with emergency service vehicles in support after making an emergency landing at Gatwick Airport, London.
A Virgin Atlantic aircraft stands on the tarmac with emergency service vehicles in support after making an emergency landing at Gatwick Airport, London.
  • Virgin flight bound for Florida returned because of technical problem
  • Reports say smoke was in cabin, and all passengers were evacuated
  • Standby runway was opened at 2 p.m. to allow some flights in and out
  • Passenger evacuation suggests serious incident, CNN's Richard Quest says

London (CNN) -- All flights into and out of London's Gatwick Airport were temporarily suspended Monday after a plane was forced to make an emergency landing amid reports of smoke in the cabin.

A Virgin Atlantic flight bound for Orlando, Florida, left Gatwick Airport at 10:48 a.m. BST but returned to make an emergency landing due to a technical problem at 12:30 p.m. Emergency services were on the scene, and all passengers were evacuated from the plane, according to an airport statement.

Virgin would not confirm or deny media reports that the cause for the landing was smoke in the airplane's cabin, but a spokeswoman for the West Sussex Fire and Rescue Service said it sent six pieces of fire equipment to deal with an incident at the airport.

The plane's emergency chutes were deployed to allow passengers to escape the aircraft, and four passengers sustained minor injuries, according to the airline.

"Due to a technical problem on board the aircraft, the captain decided as a precautionary measure to immediately evacuate the aircraft," Virgin said in a statement.

"Our teams at Gatwick are now looking after our passengers and assisting with their immediate requirements. Virgin Atlantic is working closely with the authorities to establish the cause of this incident."

Gatwick Airport's standby runway has been open since 2 p.m. BST to allow some flights to depart and arrive, but normal service has yet to resume, according to a spokeswoman.

CNN's Richard Quest said the evacuation of passengers after an emergency landing is an unusual procedure suggesting that the incident was of a serious nature.

"The pilot must have feared there was a fire onboard or a potential of flames in order to order a full evacuation," he said. "Otherwise you would just taxi in."

Virgin Atlantic said the Airbus A330-300 aircraft had 304 passengers, including three infants, and 10 crew members.

Gatwick Airport is the UK's second largest airport and the busiest single-runway airport in the world. It serves more than 200 destinations in 90 countries for about 34 million passengers a year.

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