Why Hong Kong's under-fire civil aviation chief should take off - now

Albert Cheng says the department has become a bad joke, with some dubious decisions under its director-general, whose replacement is long overdue

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 10 September, 2015, 4:33pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 10 September, 2015, 5:00pm

Under the command of its director-general Norman Lo Shung-man, the Civil Aviation Department has degenerated into an embarrassing bad apple within the government bureaucracy.

Lo has been at the helm for over a decade. Born in 1959, he is a qualified helicopter and commercial airlines pilot. He started his career in the department as a student air traffic controller in 1977 and was promoted to his current position in 2004.

His budget currently stands at HK$1.36 billion, and he has over 750 staff at his disposal. Yet, instead of enhancing Hong Kong's status as an aviation hub, Lo and his department have become a constant source of bad press.

Last year, he made a public apology after the Director of Audit found multiple violations to the original plan for the new department headquarters approved by the Legislative Council.

During the past three months, there has been no notable improvement or progress in this important area 

It was assigned a net operational floor area of 22,775 square metres for the new headquarters at Chek Lap Kok. The audit report revealed that an extra 1,500 square meters was built without notifying the Architectural Services Department and Legco. Shower facilities in Lo's office and restrooms for accident investigators - both not in the original floor plan - were installed.

After an inquiry, the Public Accounts Committee condemned Lo in "the strongest terms possible" over his failure to follow proper procedures while building the premises. Its report said that "as the head of the user department of the new CAD headquarters project, [Lo] had willfully neglected his responsibility and duties to provide complete, accurate and not misleading information to Legco for funding approval".

Lo conceded he needed to bear "part of the responsibility." Yet, he has emerged unscathed. And that is not the end of the story.

Last June, the Public Accounts Committee also denounced Lo for having purchased an expensive air traffic control system that apparently failed to perform. The committee recommended that an independent expert be hired to re-evaluate the contractor's capability to deliver a safe and reliable system for the first stage of the project.

During the past three months, there has been no notable improvement or progress in this important area and the department is back in the headlines this week, coming under fire for continuously delaying the start date for its HK$570 million Autotrac 3 air traffic management system, designed by US defence company Raytheon.

According to Ming Pao, the system's safety was questioned in reports compiled by the Air Traffic Management Standards Office, the division in charge of safety assessments. The office doubted the ability of the new system to locate planes accurately in bad weather and concluded that the system has low reliability during crises. It has been reported that the new system's data processor failed to recognise some commands and operators needed to communicate manually, by voice. This also involved time-consuming filling in of forms by hand.

The system has so far only been installed in two other places - Dubai and India. India has subsequently abandoned it. Those in the front line at the Civil Aviation Department regard Autotrac 3 as having inherent safety problems and considered it vital to initiate a further 31-day test run before it could be commissioned. The management, led by Lo, brushed aside the problems. Lo insisted that the issues had been fixed and the new system should be approved.

Lo is due to retire early next year and seems eager to make his mark before he bows out. However, he, and the rest of the management, should be held to account over whether the proper procedures were carried out in this case, and whether public safety has been compromised.

It would be best for all if Lo were to be replaced as soon as possible, with a more capable hand, to get the department back on track without delay.

Albert Cheng King-hon is a political commentator. taipan@albertcheng.hk