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Cathay Pacific Airways Ltd. is under investigation by Chinese regulators after emergency oxygen bottles on three flights were found depleted or completely empty, compounding pressure on the Hong Kong airline from mainland authorities.

Cabin crew from the flights have been grounded so they can help with the probe, Cathay told staff in a memo on Monday. As well as the Civil Aviation Administration of China, Hong Kong authorities and local police are also investigating, the note said.

Pre-flight inspections discovered 13 oxygen canisters -- designed to be used by crew in an emergency depressurization of the cabin -- that were partially or fully discharged, Cathay said last week. The inquiry is another headache for the airline’s new chief executive officer, Augustus Tang, weeks after Chinese regulators threatened to bar Cathay from the mainland because some staff supported the Hong Kong protests.

A Hellish Week for Cathay Buffeted Between China and Hong Kong

Cathay’s note to employees didn’t apportion blame for the depleted bottles, but said the probe is also drawing in ground staff, caterers, cleaners and engineers. It’s almost unheard of for a single airline to find so many canisters empty in such a short space of time.

“This is quite unusual,” said Shukor Yusof, founder of aviation consulting firm Endau Analytics. “It’s hurting Cathay’s brand.”

Security Checks

It’s the latest blow to Cathay as it struggles through months of anti-Beijing demonstrations that have at times shut down Hong Kong’s airport, Asia’s busiest hub for international traffic.
The increasingly violent nature of the protests has also weighed on demand for travel to the city.

Cathay immediately introduced stricter security checks, according to the memo.

“Cabin crew are required to carry out checks in the cabin, lavatories and crew rest compartment at least every 60 minutes between services, ensuring no suspicious activity,” it said. “Crew should be extra vigilant to emergency equipment stowage areas.”

The bottles found empty were immediately recharged and safety wasn’t compromised, according to Cathay.