Officials play down near misses
Hong Kong's civil aviation regulator says it will not recruit more air traffic control officers over the next two years despite complaints of near misses which staff blamed on a shortage of manpower.
In the first 10 months of the year the Civil Aviation Department recorded 15 near misses - meaning two aircraft came within five nautical miles (9.26 kilometres) - a jump of 66 per cent from nine such incidents for the whole of 2010.
The department said none of the incidents had safety implications, and that statistics for the past five years did not indicate a rising trend.
However, Tsang Yuk-poon, chief airworthiness-standards officer, said yesterday the department was considering whether such incidents should in future be reported to the public, as they occurred after a spate of media reports caused public concern to increase.
Raymond Li Kwok-chu, chief air traffic control officer, denied the incidents had anything to do with insufficient manpower, and dismissed suggestions that the department should import experienced air traffic control officers from overseas.
'We considered [importing staff], but after balancing this with other factors we decided our resources would be better spent on training our own people, because it takes time for an expatriate officer to adapt to our system, and after all the training they are bound to stay for only two years under our current system.'
The department recruited 120 trainees for air traffic control over the past five years - 48 have graduated so far and of the 72 still in training it is assumed, from previous years, that 85 per cent will pass.
Li said 60 new graduates would join the team in the next four years, which he said was sufficient to handle projected hourly aircraft movements of 68 in 2015. Li said they would resume recruitment in 2013.
In September the South China Morning Post reported a near miss between a Cathay Pacific plane and a Dragonair jet carrying a total of more than 600 passengers. The airliners came within one nautical mile of each other, a distance which two aviation experts said could have led to a collision in six seconds if the two were heading towards each other.
An air traffic control officer later wrote to the Post blaming labour shortages for the incidents, saying that controllers' rest time had been slashed from an hour to just 30 minutes for every two hours' work. Many had also been forbidden from taking leave despite having accumulated over 100 days of holiday.
Li said yesterday that the 30-minute rest time followed international guidelines, and any extra time off was authorised at the discretion of senior officers. He said that even at 15 near-miss incidents a year Hong Kong's airport still performed two to three times better than ones in the West handling similar traffic volumes.
Meanwhile, an investigation into an incident last July in which an AgustaWestland 139 helicopter was forced to ditch into the water in Victoria Harbour has found that the quality of the plane's tail rotor was not up to manufacturing standards. Further inquiries are being made to determine how that happened.
Sky Shuttle - owned by casino tycoon Stanley Ho Hung-sun - is still flying five AW139s on its routes between Hong Kong and Macau and Macau and Shenzhen.
At least this number of air traffic controllers are urgently needed, the Hong Kong Air Traffic Control Association says