Airport alarm bells

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 23 May, 2000, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 23 May, 2000, 12:00am

As air traffic accidents often have fatal consequences, no incident, however small, that indicates the slightest breach of safety standards can be dismissed.

The former Kai Tak airport was in the middle of the city. Although the descent over Kowloon was a hair-raising experience involving a sharp turn just before landing, the airport had an enviable safety record. So it is only natural that people expect the new Chek Lap Kok airport, a state-of-the-art facility situated in an apparently safer location, to run just as smoothly as its predecessor.

But clearly the new airport is not as efficient as it could be. Since it opened in 1998, it has had one serious crash and a higher number of 'incidents'. A total of 28 mistakes in two years is too high for comfort, even though the technology is sophisticated enough to correct human error not once but several times over.

Where air traffic is concerned, the strictest safety standards must be followed. The Civil Aviation Department's procedures seem to be rigorous, and its response to even minor incidents is intensive and more transparent than other regional authorities which do not publish such statistics. But this is as it should be, because conditions in the air have changed dramatically. The skies above the Pearl River Delta are far more crowded. Airports in Macau, Zhuhai, Shenzhen and Guangdong are all operational.

Chek Lap Kok has two runways. It is also the world's second busiest air cargo hub.

Higher volume, narrower flight paths, more sophisticated equipment, a loss of some experienced staff after the move from Kai Tak, and less familiarity with the new facilities have all contributed to the error total. The department has introduced measures to rectify known weaknesses in the system, but the question that remains is whether there are contributory factors. For example, is the command of English good enough among new recruits to cope with such demanding duties? Falling standards have caused comment in the business community. It would be worrying if that problem existed in the control tower where split-second decisions must sometimes be made. No matter how good the technology, human communication is still the bottom line. When 15 incidents are caused through directions from air traffic control personnel, it is hard not to wonder if language problems play any part.