Air traffic safety risk from lack of staff

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 05 June, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 05 June, 2011, 12:00am


As Hong Kong considers a third runway at Chek Lap Kok airport, some air traffic controllers claim they are already struggling to cope with a manpower shortage they say is leading to fatigue and putting flight safety in jeopardy.

The group claimed some controllers were owed as much as 180 days' leave yet were unable to take holidays, creating potentially dangerous levels of fatigue in the control tower.

They said air traffic teams were increasingly stretched as flights hit record levels of up to 1,000 flights a day and preparations were made for a new control centre. They said '10 to 15 more controllers' were needed to meet current demand.

One controller, speaking on condition of anonymity, said morale was at the lowest level he had known and claimed many young controllers were 'demoralised, unmotivated and numbed into submission'.

The claims were dismissed by Civil Aviation Department director general Norman Lo who said that although staffing levels were 'tight', new controllers were being hired and training streamlined. There was no evidence of fatigue affecting operations, he insisted.

A department spokeswoman also said it did not anticipate any problems in meeting the required staff levels for air traffic controllers if the third runway project went ahead.

A statement drawn up by a number of air traffic controllers and passed to the Sunday Morning Post described controllers being owed 180 days' leave as 'totally unacceptable'.

Seventy per cent of operational staff had not had a two- or three-week holiday in five years, the statement said, adding that 'safety issues' were most obvious on night shifts where similar traffic loads were handled by a 'skeleton staff'.

The controllers said they feared the situation would worsen as senior controllers retired and not enough new controllers were coming through the ranks to replace them. 'The situation should have been addressed at least two years ago,' said one controller, pointing out that it took five years to train a controller.

In an incident last September cited by the controllers as an example of fatigue and manpower issues, a Cathay Pacific plane taking off for London after midnight had to deviate from the runway centre line at high speed because the tail of another plane was too close to its path.

The second plane was unable to get out of the way because another aircraft was blocking its path on the taxiway. Cathay Pacific confirmed the incident and said a pilot's report on it had been sent to air traffic controllers afterwards. A Civil Aviation Department spokeswoman said an investigation found that the second plane's tail was too close but had not protruded on to the runway. The controller involved was 'thoroughly coached and debriefed'.

Lo said there was no evidence of an increase in incidents related to fatigue and said steps were being taken to reduce outstanding leave. He conceded there were times when the department had 'difficulty in satisfying staff requests on leave' because of seasonal heavy traffic and busy days. 'It is because we run on very tight staff resources,' he said. Staff have to realise the difficulties and problems the management is facing at this time, especially when traffic demand is always on the increase.'

The departmental spokeswoman stressed that rosters were carefully reviewed to prevent controller fatigue. 'Over the past five years, more than 40 new rated controllers were added to the system, with more being trained up consistently - around 15 a year,'' she said.

Meanwhile, Airport Authority chief executive Stanley Hui Hon-chung yesterday told RTHK radio the body would have to discuss with the government about how to raise the HK$100 billion needed to build the third runway if the plan went ahead.

He had earlier suggested that airport users - ranging from airlines and passengers to hotels and retailers - could help pay part of the costs. Previous estimates put the cost at HK$136.2 billion, including inflation. After bank loans, the authority would still need HK$100 billion.