An emergency descent on Tuesday by an Air China aircraft after cabin oxygen levels dropped has been linked to a copilot smoking an e-cigarette during the flight, state media said yesterday, citing China’s aviation regulator.
The state-backed Air China Boeing 737 aircraft was flying from Hong Kong to the Chinese city of Dalian when it descended to 3,048m and oxygen masks deployed. It then climbed to continue to its destination, an incident that fueled the concerns of safety experts.
Chinese airlines have a good safety record in general, but passengers have, on occasion, accused pilots of smoking during flights.
However, few such incidents have been confirmed.
“In the preliminary investigation, the copilot was found to be smoking an e-cigarette,” state-owned China News said, citing a news conference by the Chinese Civil Aviation Administration investigating the incident.
“Smoke diffused into the passenger cabin and relevant air-conditioning components were wrongly shut off, without notifying the captain, which resulted in insufficient oxygen,” it quoted Aviation Safety Office official Qiao Yibin (喬以濱) as saying.
The copilot had shut off the air-conditioning units, China News said.
The shutoff triggered an alarm, prompting the crew to perform an emergency pressure relief procedure, which then released the cabin’s oxygen masks, Qiao was quoted as saying.
The crew realized the problem after the descent and restored the air-conditioning, allowing cabin pressure to return to normal, he added.
The agency said it was continuing the investigation and was analyzing the aircraft’s flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder.
Air China did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
It vowed a “zero-tolerance” approach toward wrongdoing by any crew on its microblog on Wednesday.
The incident yesterday featured heavily on Chinese social media, with some commentators demanding harsh punishment and revocation of the pilot’s flight license.
China’s aviation regulations, which bar flight crew from “smoking on all phases of operation,” also banned passengers from using e-cigarettes on flights in 2006.
However, users of online airline forums have occasionally accused pilots of smoking during flights.
In 2015, government-run China National Radio said four passengers on an Air China flight from Hong Kong to Beijing smelled strong smoke emitted from the cabin.
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