Fresh concern over Hong Kong’s new air traffic control system hours before it goes live

Lawmaker claims staff were pressured into giving thumbs up to system in a survey despite having reservations

PUBLISHED : Monday, 14 November, 2016, 12:01am
UPDATED : Monday, 14 November, 2016, 9:26am

Hong Kong’s controversial new air traffic control system is due to go live at 7am on Monday as last-minute concerns emerge.

The latest misgivings – which centre on air traffic controllers allegedly being brow-beaten into giving a positive response to a survey carried out by an independent British company, which was key to the system getting the green light – come after months of disquiet at the new arrangements.

Civic Party lawmaker and former pilot Jeremy Tam Man-ho said a number of air traffic controllers he had been in contact with said they were pressured into giving the system the thumbs up despite holding reservations. Tam said the pressure amounted to the process being “rigged”.

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

Air traffic controllers, on condition of anonymity, have told the Post that they must give a pass grade on a self-assessment on their readiness level in adopting the new system or else risk hurting their promotion prospects or having their acting positions revoked.

After much delay the HK$1.56 billion Raytheon AutoTrac III will roll out at Hong Kong International Airport at 7am on Monday, replacing the AutoTrac I that had been in use for 18 years.

The Transport Bureau made the announcement on Sunday night, saying an independent British consultant had confirmed the upgrade was “safe, stable and reliable” and ready to go.

But Tam revealed that the new model was much more demanding to operate, putting staff under great stress.

“The new system requires a lot of manual data input by air traffic controllers. Their situation awareness is inevitably affected as they are distracted by the complicated input procedures,” he explained.

Such was the problem that two aircraft came within 15 miles of each other last month before manoeuvres were taken to avoid a head-on collision. Tam said the incident in the early hours of October 14 occurred when staff manning the new system failed to detect the overlapping flight paths.

An air traffic controller, who gave his alias as Steven, explained the severity of the incident.

“Both aircraft were cruising at [40,000] feet at the time before the supervisor of [AutoTrac I], which was shadowing the new system, rang up the controllers and notified them of the imminent collision,” he said.

“In the end, one aircraft was asked to descend by 1,000 feet. At speeds of 7 to 8 miles per minute, they would otherwise have come into contact in less than a minute.”

Why safety fears over Hong Kong’s new air traffic control system are groundless

Steven also said the Civil Aviation Department had exerted pressure on those who gave low marks in the staff survey.

On a scale of one to five, air traffic controllers were asked to indicate their “degree of readiness to provide ATC services using the new system, with a score of three considered a passing mark.

“Those who returned a score of one or two would be summoned by the management and given a blank form to fill in again,” he said. “This is intimidation and borderline negligence of public duty.”

Tam said he had confirmed the allegations with around 10 air traffic controllers.

According to the report by Britain’s National Air Traffic Service, training and experience levels for operation staff must be recorded in the transitional phase.

“NATS notes the overall confidence levels from the training simulation exercises – and that CAD had confirmed that these exercises include fall back procedures and high traffic levels,” it read.

Tam said the latest report indicated a “100 per cent” confidence level on the part of Civil Aviation Department staff.

If no answers were provided from the government within 24 hours, Tam said he would propose setting up a Legislative Council committee to look into the matter.

The department and NATS had yet to respond to Post inquiries.