Air China Co-Pilot Causes 25,000-Foot Plunge by Vaping in Cockpit

Passengers aboard Air China flight CA106 from Hong Kong on Tuesday night found themselves plunging 25,000 feet in ten minutes because their co-pilot was smoking an e-cigarette in the cockpit and hit the wrong switch when he attempted to keep the vapors from wafting into the passenger area.

“After an investigation to verify the incident, the decision is to suspend the related crew from flying and terminate the contracts in accordance with the law. The crew members who are responsible for the incident have been seriously dealt with,” Air China said on Friday when announcing the dismissal of the crew. Air China further advised China’s Civil Aviation Administration (CAAC) to revoke the licenses of both pilot and co-pilot.

The South China Morning Post explained why passengers aboard flight CA106 found themselves in a state of emergency only half an hour after takeoff:

CAAC, which seized the aircraft’s flight data and voice recorders and interviewed crew members, said preliminary investigations found that the co-pilot had, without telling the pilot, attempted to turn off a circulation fan to prevent e-cigarette smoke from reaching the cabin.

“[But the co-pilot] mistakenly switched off the air-conditioning unit that was next to it, resulting in insufficient oxygen in the cabin and an altitude warning,” said Qiao Yibin, of the authority’s safety office, at a press briefing on Friday, according to state-run Xinhua news agency.

Air China’s website says smoking is strictly prohibited on all its flights. It is clearly stated that e-cigarettes are also banned.

On Friday, the airline said it had immediately launched an investigation into the incident and checked on “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 recur.

Aviation experts were not entirely satisfied with the results of the preliminary investigation, pointing out that it was dangerous for the pilots to proceed with the rest of the flight after the passengers used up all of the bottled oxygen, leaving no reserves to deal with an actual in-flight emergency.

It also seems odd that merely turning off the air conditioning system would cause the plane to plunge 25,000 feet. The BBC explained that the loss of air conditioning caused the plane’s other systems to react as if the cabin were losing pressure, which obliged the pilots to quickly bring the aircraft to a lower altitude to keep the passengers safe.

Reuters noted that while Chinese airlines have a good safety record overall, there have been previous passenger complaints about pilots furtively smoking. Few of those incidents have been officially confirmed. Perhaps with that history in mind, Chinese social media users made the CA106 incident into a big deal online, demanding harsh punishment for the crew.

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