Chinese flight regulations banned smoking and e-cigarette use for both crew members and passengers in 2006
An Air China Boeing 737 was en route from Hong Kong to the Chinese city of Dalian when it had to drop 21,000 feet and deploy oxygen masks due to a sudden loss in cabin pressure. According to reports, the aircraft got down to as low as 10,000 feet before reascending and continuing to its destination. The incident happened aboard Flight CA106 on Tuesday, July 10th at roughly 6:30PM local time (GMT+8).
According to a news conference by the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC), preliminary investigations traced the cause of the incident to a co-pilot vaping in the cockpit.
Qiao Yibin, an official of the CAAC safety office, explained that the co-pilot "was trying to hide the fact that he was vaping by turning off a fan without telling the Captain," presumably to prevent vapor emissions from reaching the passenger cabin. Instead, he shut off the air conditioning unit and caused a dramatic drop in the cabin's oxygen levels. The blunder caused the aircraft to lose cabin pressure, forcing the pilots to rapidly descend to lower altitude. This is what briefly activated emergency systems and dropped the oxygen masks.
Social Media Backlash and Disciplinary Measures
The CAAC is continuing its review process by inspecting the aircraft's flight data recorder as well as audio from the cockpit on the date of the incident. In the meantime, they've issued Air China a fine of 50,000 yuan ($7,500) in accordance with existing regulations and cut the airline's flights with Boeing 737 models by 10 percent. The CAAC also ordered Air China to commit their staff and administration to a three-month safety review.
Air China, for their part, immediately vowed to enforce their "zero tolerance" policy via Weibo, a Chinese microblogging site similar to Twitter. After a short independent investigation, the airline fired both the Captain and First Officer just days after the incident. The pilots have since had their aviation licenses revoked by the Chinese government. According to the South China Morning Post, a third pilot has had his license revoked for six months, and has been banned by Air China for a period of two years.
The airline's stringent response seems to have appeased the backlash on Chinese social media, where several public commentators called for "harsh penalties" in order for the national carrier to redeem itself on the world stage.
For the most part, Air China has enjoyed glowing safety records. Passengers occasionally claim to have noticed pilots smoking during flights via social media and online review posts, but very few such incidents have been confirmed.