Air China Penalized After Smoking Pilot Causes Plane to Plunge

(Bloomberg) -- Air China Ltd. is facing heat from regulators for a July 10 incident when a pilot, while smoking an electronic cigarette in the cockpit, caused the plane to go into a free-fall.

The co-pilot of a Boeing Co. 737 aircraft, flying from Hong Kong to Dalian, tried to turn off a circulation fan to prevent smoke from reaching the cabin, but ended up switching off the air-conditioner instead, according to an initial probe by the aviation safety regulator. That triggered a depressurization alert and resulted in rapid loss of altitude. Oxygen masks dropped as the plane plunged, but it eventually landed safely.

As part of the penalties, the Civil Aviation Administration of China ordered the state-owned flag carrier to cut its Boeing narrow-body jet flight capacity by 10 percent, government television CCTV reported on its WeChat account Wednesday. That would amount to a reduction of 5,400 flight hours a month. CAAC also imposed a fine of 50,000 yuan ($7,462) on the carrier and scrapped the licenses of the pilots involved, the channel said.

Air China declined to comment. The flag carrier’s shares fell as much as 1.4 percent in Hong Kong on Wednesday. The regulator didn’t specify how long the capacity cut will be in force.

The measures by the regulator are likely to hurt the Beijing-based company, which is already bracing for higher expenses from a weakening yuan and rising fuel costs. The penalty could result in about a 3 percentage point drop in Air China’s capacity, according to an estimate by Tianfeng Securities Co.

To contact Bloomberg News staff for this story: Dong Lyu in Beijing at dlyu3@bloomberg.net

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