Air China incident a reminder to be vigilant
Chinese airlines have had an enviable safety record in recent times but that is no reason to be complacent, as seen in the scare on a flight from Hong Kong to Dalian
Rapid growth of commercial aviation can put safety standards under pressure. Nowhere is this more true than in China. Thankfully, despite unprecedented expansion that reflects its economic rise, Chinese airlines have an enviable record in recent times, with industry rankings putting them among the safest. But it does not take much to provide a reminder this cannot be taken for granted.
A case in point is the sudden loss of altitude by an Air China Boeing 737 linked to the smoking or vaping of an illicit e-cigarette by one of the pilots during a flight from Hong Kong to Dalian, with 153 passengers and nine crew. State regulator the Civil Aviation Administration of China said that, without telling the pilot in command, the co-pilot had tried to turn off a fan to prevent e-cigarette smoke from reaching the passengers cabin. A preliminary investigation showed he had mistakenly switched off the air-conditioning unit next to it. The result was insufficient oxygen in the cabin, which triggered deployment of emergency oxygen masks and an altitude warning about half an hour into the flight, followed by an emergency descent from 11,000 to 3,000 metres.
The airline says it has fired the pilots. CAAC has revoked their licences and punished the airline by reducing its flight hours with 737s by 10 per cent, imposing a three-month safety review and fining it, according to state television. The prompt, transparent action is commendable. Anything less would have done nothing for public confidence. But it does not necessarily address any underlying management problems arising from a breakneck pace of expansion.
Air China’s website makes it clear the smoking prohibition on aircraft includes e-cigarettes. What could the pilots have been thinking? It is good to hear the airline promise to learn from the episode and to improve its safety systems. We trust that includes the pilots’ decision, questioned by aviation observers, to climb to 8,000 metres and continue the journey after the incident instead of turning back, despite having used up emergency oxygen supplies in the sudden descent. Presumably that has something to do with the two-year suspension of a ground dispatcher who shared responsibility for ensuring the plane reached its destination safely.