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Hong Kong aviation

Hong Kong should just scrap its faulty air traffic control system

Albert Cheng says after a series of worrying glitches, Asia’s premier aviation hub should bite the bullet and buy another more reliable system. And those who made the wrong call should be held accountable

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 01 December, 2016, 7:14pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 01 December, 2016, 7:51pm

Hong Kong’s new HK$1.56 billion air traffic control system was originally planned for 2012, but the start date had to be deferred because of various problems. The Civil Aviation Department had to throw in millions of dollars more for manufacturer Raytheon to make improvements before its roll-out in the city.

Faulty new HK$1.56 billion air traffic control system stalls flights at Hong Kong airport

Initially, the department reduced the daily landings and take-offs to prevent overloading the problematic system in an attempt to ensure a smooth transition when it was fully commissioned last month. Despite this, glitches were still reported.

In the latest malfunction, the system blanked out and failed to display flight information for 26 seconds. As a result, planes had to be stopped from departing. The fault has aroused extensive public concerns about aviation safety. The department has tried in vain to play down the seriousness of the issue. Meanwhile, no official has accepted responsibility or been held accountable for the wrong call in purchasing the new system.

Some have suggested adopting both the new and old systems in parallel so as to minimise the chances of a mishap. This is impractical. It would only add to the workload of the already overburdened air traffic controllers.

What are the problems affecting Hong Kong’s new air traffic control system?

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Norman Lo Shung-man, the former director general of civil aviation who presided over the procurement of the air traffic control system, has a lot to answer for. No doubt Secretary for Transport and Housing Anthony Cheung Bing-leung was led by the nose, as he is not an expert in the field with adequate knowledge of aviation operation.

It is sheer luck that there has not been a fatal accident

In 2011, two years after the tender opened for a new air traffic control system to replace Hong Kong’s ageing one, US military contractor Raytheon won the bid with its AutoTrac 3 system. The new system was meant to be commissioned in 2012, but was postponed when no verified record of its good performance could be found. It was then revealed that no airport had fully rolled out the air traffic system before the Hong Kong tender closed in 2010. India’s New Delhi, Mumbai and Chennai airports only started using the system in 2011, and Dubai in 2012.

Was the Central Tender Board misled by civil aviation officials that there was positive feedback on the system? Media reports later revealed that Hong Kong officials did not visit the airports in India and Dubai until after Raytheon had won the bid.

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Obviously, the Civil Aviation Department made a bad decision and it is sheer luck that there has not been a fatal accident.

Using the old system is not the way out as it lacks satellite support. To cut losses, the AutoTrac 3 system should be terminated as soon as it is viable. The department should apply for a new budget to launch a new air traffic control system. Meanwhile, Raytheon should make instant improvements and upgrades to the system to ensure the smooth operation of the airport.

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These crises reflect the red tape and impotence of the Civil Aviation Department.

In Hong Kong, the most important aviation hub in the Asia-Pacific region, air freight is a prime economic advantage. Despite the third runway proposal, the capacity of the two existing runways has not been fully utilised. At a more practical level, the airspace dispute needs to be resolved.

To unleash the potential of our international airport and fully utilise the two runways, we need to attract overseas professionals.

Meanwhile, Norman Lo must be held accountable and an independent investigation held. For reasons unknown to the public, he acted against better advice and known circumstances to insist on buying the American system. However, the harm has been done, and the only way to rectify the mistake is to replace the AutoTrac 3 system with a more reliable one with a proven track record.

At the same time, the Civil Aviation Department should admit its limitations. In the long run, the department should hand over its air traffic control duties to an organisation that is less bureaucratic, more efficient and more reliable. That organisation is readily available in the name of the Airport Authority.

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