Airport expansion won't fly without more controllers

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 08 June, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 08 June, 2011, 12:00am


The crux of the debate over a third runway is the issue of software - the manpower shortage - which has long been overlooked by the Airport Authority, the Civil Aviation Department and the public.

The lack of qualified air-traffic controllers is why the existing runways have been underused and why the current scheduled flight movements have not been raised from 61 per hour to a more competitive level.

Airport expansion, whether it be through increasing the current capacity or adding a third runway, will only upgrade the hardware. Any such expansion will be wasted if it is not matched by parallel human resources development.

The shortage of air-traffic controllers has long affected staff morale. The situation has reached a critical point where we risk pushing them to the brink of collapse, which could bring the entire operation to a standstill.

Last September, for example, a Cathay Pacific Boeing 747, scheduled for an early morning flight to London, almost collided with another plane on the runway during take-off due to congestion. The pilot of the Cathay plane moved the aircraft out of the way in time to avert a potential disaster, but the delayed take-off nearly affected the landing of another aircraft on the same runway, which potentially posed another safety issue.

The incident was reported to the Civil Aviation Department. No personnel were reprimanded or suspended. Just how often do such incidents take place?

A group of air-traffic controllers claimed that the incident was the direct result of fatigue caused by overwork and manpower shortages. This was vehemently denied by the director general of civil aviation, Norman Lo Shung-man, who said air-traffic management was highly complex and that it would be impossible to satisfy all demands from staff no matter what system was used.

The Civil Aviation Department obviously tried to avoid addressing the core issue. At present, there are about 160 air-traffic controllers, 70 per cent of whom said they had not had a two- or three-week holiday in five years. Even Lo admitted that the overtime accumulated by air-traffic controllers had at one point exceeded 12,000 hours.

If that's not a serious problem of understaffing, what is?

It is common to see staff clocking more than 200 hours of overtime. In one case, two controllers were unable to synchronise their leave time to get married. In the end, the bride-to-be had to resign so the wedding could go ahead.

Training an air-traffic controller takes a few years, then there are the costs involved. The grooming of senior personnel to manage and train younger staff takes longer still.

At present, 10 to 15 more air-traffic controllers are needed to ease the workload, one controller estimated. The Civil Aviation Department is only able to train 15 to 20 junior controllers every year. There is no way it can cope with further expansion.

Our airport facilities are underused and manpower support to facilitate aircraft movements is particularly low during night hours. As a result, it has affected the expanded passenger and cargo services of airlines such as Cathay Pacific and Hong Kong Airlines. A failure to address these capacity problems to meet future demand would not only affect our international aviation status but would also have a knock-on effect on the economy and our pillar industries such as tourism, logistics, finance and trade.

We can't afford to be a sitting duck and risk being overtaken by our neighbouring competitors. Airport expansion takes time and money; our best option is to recruit experienced air-traffic controllers from overseas so we can immediately expand our capacity and maintain our aviation hub status. The initial investment to hire 30 qualified overseas controllers may be around HK$40 million per year, but the eventual economic benefits are infinite. And, don't forget that our priceless reputation is at stake.

Albert Cheng King-hon is a political commentator.