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Aviation

Air China’s flight hours cut by state regulator and pilots’ licences revoked after plane’s 25,000-foot plunge in vaping fiasco

Sanctions imposed on airline after episode where oxygen masks were deployed mid-flight in emergency descent

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 18 July, 2018, 11:44am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 18 July, 2018, 11:37pm

China’s aviation regulator has cut Air China’s flight hours and revoked the licences of two pilots after a vaping incident in the cockpit triggered an emergency descent last week.

In a string of sanctions imposed on the country’s flag carrier, Air China will be forced to reduce the flight hours on its Boeing 737 fleet by 10 per cent, undergo a three-month safety review and be fined for the incident.

The decision was made by the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC), according to state television and an internal note obtained by the Post.

Last Friday, Air China said it would fire the pilots of flight CA106 from Hong Kong to Dalian. Three days earlier on July 10, the plane dropped 25,000 feet (7,620 metres) in 10 minutes as it was between Shantou and Xiamen.

It then climbed from an altitude of 10,000 feet to 26,000 feet and arrived safely at its destination. No injuries were reported and the aircraft was not damaged.

Air China will fire pilots in e-cigarette smoking fiasco

The incident was caused by an error from one of three pilots, who was smoking an e-cigarette in the cockpit. Investigations showed he tried to turn off the circulation fan to prevent smoke from reaching the cabin, but mistakenly switched off the air conditioning system, resulting in insufficient oxygen and triggering the release of oxygen masks.

The plane then went into an emergency descent.

Both the captain and first officer had their commercial pilot licences revoked, according to the note. It was unclear which of the two had smoked the e-cigarette or was responsible for deciding to continue to Dalian.

Protocol dictates pilots should land a plane once oxygen masks have been deployed, because if another emergency occurs later in the flight, there would be insufficient supplies for passengers and crew.

A third pilot, previously unreported, was sitting in a jump seat in the cockpit. His licence was suspended for six months and he was slapped with a two-year ban from flying any Air China plane.

A ground dispatcher, whose role was to ensure the plane reached its destination safely, was suspended for two years.

Flight data seized from plane that plummeted ‘because crew were smoking’

Air China was fined 50,000 yuan (US$7,500).

The CAAC said Air China would have to cut 5,400 flight hours monthly on its Boeing 737 fleet – a reduction of 10 per cent – but did not say how long that would last.

The airline has 148 of the 737 planes, making up about a third of its 399 aircraft, according to company data. Each aircraft flies about 12 to 13 hours daily on average.

Aviation sector analyst Toliver Ma said the sanctions would reduce Air China’s overall capacity by under 10 per cent but, as the Boeing 737 fleet is used on more profitable domestic routes, the airline would take a financial hit.

“This would hurt its revenue and bottom line for sure, as the domestic market is more profitable and the longer the sanctions, the worse for Air China,” Ma, of Guotai Junan Securities, said.

As for any damage to Air China’s reputation, this would be “short-lived”, he continued.

“As the domestic market is controlled mainly by the three big carriers, I believe Air China will recover soon,” Ma said, referring to China Eastern and China Southern airlines.

Albert Lam Kwong-yu, former director general at Hong Kong’s Civil Aviation Department, said the incident would be considered “a very serious offence” by regulators.

“The pilot himself should very well know what is safe and not safe,” he said. “Knowing he did something so overt, he will be dealt with very severely.”

Last week, Air China said it had immediately launched an investigation into the incident and scrutinised “weak links” to rectify safety measures across the company.

It expressed its appreciation for passengers and said it would “conscientiously” learn lessons from the episode to improve its safety management system and ensure such incidents did not occur again.