Collision course

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 08 October, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 08 October, 2011, 12:00am


On September 18, two Hong Kong-bound flights carrying more than 600 passengers narrowly missed each other while trying to land at the city's airport.

The Civil Aviation Department stressed that there had been no risk of a collision and dismissed claims that the near miss was caused by fatigued air traffic controllers. An investigation is under way.

But a former civil aviation chief, Albert Lam Kwong-yu, claimed that the chance of a crash was high - saying that if not for the skilled actions of the pilots after the warning signals had sounded, the planes could have collided within six seconds. He called on the government to conduct an independent investigation.

The department has said that the controller involved has 14 years' experience and had been off the day before the incident. Its point was that the matter had nothing to do with overworked staff or manpower issues. But it's possible that it was related to a lack of practical experience or training - or both. A shortage of experienced air traffic controllers means that many less experienced controllers are left to work without supervision.

According to the Hong Kong Air Traffic Control Association, which represents 30 per cent of our air traffic control staff, the city's airport has to handle nearly 1,000 flight movements a day. The majority of air traffic control staff are overworked without sufficient leave and rest days. And this situation has gone on for a long time.

To resolve the issue, there is an urgent need to recruit at least 10 air traffic controllers. Unfortunately, the current civil aviation chief Norman Lo Shung-man seems oblivious to the problem and insists that the level of manpower is adequate.

It has been claimed that one of the causes of the latest incident could have been that most of the experienced controllers on duty that day were assigned to work at the new airport terminal. If that was the case, it would amount to a dereliction of duty on Lo's part.

It takes at least five years to train a junior air traffic controller, but to train up a competent controller who can double as trainer and supervisor takes at least 10 years. The Civil Aviation Department says it has recruited more than 40 new controllers over the past five years. But one controller estimated that, with 160 air traffic controllers in Hong Kong, about 10 per cent more are needed. The majority say they have not had a two- or three-week break in five years.

The manpower issue can be easily resolved by recruiting experienced air traffic controllers from overseas. But if our aviation officials refuse to budge in their localised recruitment approach and insist on making fatigued controllers work overtime, we risk not only our reputation as an international aviation hub, but also many innocent lives.

The latest near miss wasn't an isolated incident. We have to tackle the long-standing shortage of air traffic control staff. The government must set up an independent committee to get to the bottom of this. If we can't deal with manpower or expand our air traffic handling capacity, there is no need to talk about building a third runway.

Albert Cheng King-hon is a political commentator.