It takes a nation to protect the nation
By IAN DRURY
For 15 years she has proudly served her country as a Royal Navy engineer, risking her life in Afghanistan when she fought against the Taliban.
But far from showing Nicky Howse the respect she deserved as she flew back to her latest posting, Virgin Atlantic staff chose to humiliate her – by demanding that she remove her uniform because it was ‘offensive’.
They warned the 32-year-old helicopter technician she would not be allowed to fly unless she took off her combat fatigues and wore a sleep suit instead.
Disrespectful: Royal Navy engineer Nicky Howse, 32, was told she would have to remove her uniform if she wanted to board a flight in case it offended other passengers
Petty Officer Howse was waiting for her return flight to Los Angeles from Heathrow on Monday when the incident happened
Petty Officer Howse is on a three-month deployment with a helicopter unit in the US, but had been home on compassionate leave to attend her grandfather’s funeral. She had worn her uniform without any problems on a Virgin flight from America to Britain the week before.
The incident happened as she waited for her return flight to Los Angeles from Heathrow on Monday.
She was confronted by a G4S security guard and Virgin Atlantic staff, who ordered her to change into pyjamas before boarding the jet.
They told her – wrongly – that it was the company’s policy not to allow military personnel to travel in uniform.
In emails sent to a civilian friend, Petty Officer Howse, from Ipswich, Suffolk, said: ‘It was horrific. I was made to feel uncomfortable in my own country for wearing the uniform I wear to defend the place. It made me ashamed of my country that a British serviceman can’t travel in uniform. I was so distressed.’
The Royal Navy engineer was forced to change into a Virgin Atlantic sleep suit for the duration of the flight
She told her friend: ‘It started at check-in. Some G4S security guy gave me the third degree about travelling in uniform. I was fuming. He was rude, he wouldn’t let the check-in girl give me my passport.
‘I was shaking with rage. I thought it was all done. But when I got to the departure gate I was taken to the side by the flight supervisor and they said I wasn’t allowed to fly in uniform and had to wear a sleep suit. I then stood feeling completely humiliated with other passengers, clearly curious as to what was going on, staring at me, waiting for him to come back with the black pyjamas.
‘I asked if it was Virgin policy, they said “Yes”. I refused to wear it until after I was on board then still refused but basically got told I’d be asked to leave the flight if I didn’t take it off or cover it up.’
She told her friend: ‘I was basically told it was because “We don’t only fly British passengers” and told it was seen as a threat. I went ballistic. I said “In the country I defend I can’t wear my uniform?”
‘They then said it was for my own safety to stop abuse to which I replied I can deal with that myself if it arises as I did in Afghanistan.
‘Honestly, I was gobsmacked and horrified. I was so distressed, particularly since the whole reason I was travelling was for a funeral.
‘To clarify, a British airline who claims to be Britain’s flag carrier won’t allow a member of Britain’s armed forces to travel on their airline in uniform.’ Armed Forces rules state that a serviceman or woman can wear their uniforms voluntarily from their ‘residence to place of duty, irrespective of whether they travel by public or private transport, or on foot.’
Colonel Richard Kemp, who led British forces in Afghanistan, said: ‘This is an insult to the Royal Navy and to the British armed forces who the Queen’s uniform represents.
‘This naval engineer has volunteered to serve and to fight for her country. How dare Virgin Atlantic and G4S treat her like dirt?’
Tory MP Patrick Mercer, a former infantry officer, said: ‘Our soldiers, sailors and airmen risk their lives so that firms like Virgin Atlantic can operate and make money.
‘It is nothing short of disgraceful that they don’t receive the proper respect due to their uniform.’
A Virgin Atlantic spokesman said it did not have a policy against passengers travelling in uniform. He added: ‘This was a completely isolated case in which our staff were incorrectly advised by a security agent … We have made contact with the passenger in question to express our deep regret for any upset caused.’
G4S declined to comment, claiming it had not received a complaint.