An investigation has been launched after a packed passenger plane plunged 25,000 feet in an emergency descent amid claims the pilots had been smoking in the cockpit.
Chinese authorities are investigating after an Air China aircraft made an emergency descent to 10,000 feet (3,048 metres), during which oxygen masks were deployed, and then climbed again to continue on to its destination.
The northeast bureau of the Civil Aviation Administration said on its website that the Boeing 737 flight CA106 from Hong Kong to Dalian was cruising on Tuesday with 153 passengers and nine crew when the incident occurred.
Oxygen masks can be seen hanging down into the cabin on an Air China flight that dropped 25,000 feet. There are claims the pilots had been smoking in the cockpit
No injuries were reported and the plane was not damaged, it said, adding that it was examining the flight data recorder and the cockpit voice recorder to determine what happened.
The plane descended from 35,000 feet to 10,000 feet in 10 minutes as is standard practice in a decompression event, according to FlightRadar24 data.
It then ascended and continued the flight at a peak altitude of 26,600 feet rather than heading to a nearby airport to land.
State-backed newspaper Beijing News, citing unnamed sources, said that crew members had been smoking during the flight.
A passenger who only gave his surname as Wang told the government-run China News Service that passengers were told that the aircraft cabin was experiencing decompression.
Chinese news website Sina reported cabin pressurisation was restored and the aircraft began to climb again despite oxygen masks having already been deployed.
Sina quoted other passengers as saying that they experienced a second scare towards the end of the flight, when an announcement was made asking passengers to put on the oxygen masks even though his had been depleted.
However, the cabin crew dismissed it as a false alarm, it said.
Industry experts said the decision to climb and continue the flight was unusual given the oxygen masks had already been deployed.
They added there was a risk another decompression event could occur after the one-time supply of 12 to 20 minutes from the oxygen masks was used up.
Air China said on its official Weibo account that it would show ‘zero tolerance’ if its crew were found to have committed wrongdoings (file picture)
Former Qantas head of safety, Ron Bartsch, said: ‘The crew would not have been able to accurately assess the amount of emergency oxygen available.
‘In my opinion the pilot in command should have landed at the nearest suitable airport.’
Air China declined to comment on the reports, but said on its official Weibo account that it would show ‘zero tolerance’ if its crew were found to have committed wrongdoings.
It explained: ‘Regarding the incident of oxygen masks dropping on the flight CA106 from Hong Kong to Dalian on July 10, currently the flight crew are being investigated by the relevant department from Civil Aviation Bureau.
‘If the investigation shows any conduct from the flight crew that breaks the policies or regulations, the company would seriously deal with the people responsible for the matters with zero tolerance.’
In 2000, an Alaska Airlines flight experienced pressurisation issues and oxygen masks deployed, prompting a return to 10,000 feet.
Once the issue was resolved, the pilots continued the flight, reaching a peak altitude of 41,000 feet.
Both pilots were later stripped of their licenses. The U.S. National Transportation Board said the captain had ‘knowingly and unnecessarily exposed 88 passengers and three cabin crew members to the significant likelihood of sudden, serious brain injury or death in the event the aircraft experienced another pressurisation problem’.
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