The fiasco of Hong Kong’s new air-traffic control system must be fully investigated

The city’s reputation is at stake, and sensitivities must be put aside in favour of full transparency

PUBLISHED : Friday, 04 November, 2016, 12:38am
UPDATED : Friday, 04 November, 2016, 12:38am

As a centre for international and regional trade, commerce and finance, Hong Kong values a good reputation as an air transport hub. The saga of the troubled introduction of the airport’s new but much-delayed HK$1.5 billion air-traffic control system is therefore of growing concern. The problem was highlighted yet again after the system suffered a technical failure during a test run in front of civil aviation officials and Civic Party legislator Jeremy Tam Man-ho.

The deputy director-general of civil aviation, Kevin Choi, later confirmed that the new Auto Trac III system began running very slowly during a test run late last month after air-traffic controllers had input data about the biennial Airshow China expo in Zhuhai. One air-traffic control source said screens had frozen, though Choi said only three controllers out of 50 working at the time were directly affected and they did not have to communicate with flights. Controllers switched to the old system.

Delays to Hong Kong’s new air traffic control system could lead to more cancelled flights

It is not uncommon for teething problems to arise during hi-tech upgrades of critical infrastructure. But we are talking about a system to ensure safe operations at one of the world’s busiest airports that was supposed to come on line in 2012. The latest incident happened just before the new system was supposed to be switched on. Secretary for Transport and Housing Anthony Cheung Bing-leung ordered an internal investigation. Consultants National Air Traffic Service, which runs UK air navigation, will also conduct an independent probe.

The new system has a troubled history, including scores of alterations to the tender and changes to proven performance criteria that have never been satisfactorily explained, prompting calls for the anti-graft body to look into it. Most important and urgent are the performance and reliability of the system. Investigations of the latest fiasco must be expedited, with unimpeded access to relevant information. In the interests of public safety, the need for open and transparent findings overrides commercial and bureaucratic sensitivities.