Hong Kong aviation bosses reject call to man old air traffic system on standby as problems with upgrade pile up

Legislator and former pilot calls for ‘warm standby’ for old system, but Civil Aviation Department says that can’t happen, citing staff shortage

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 30 November, 2016, 12:02pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 30 November, 2016, 8:01pm

Aviation officials on Wednesday rejected calls to put the city’s old air traffic control system on standby with surveillance around the clock despite continuous glitches with the expensive replacement system, blaming a manpower shortage.

Deputy director of the Civil Aviation Department, Kevin Choi, said on a radio programme it would take up to 20 extra staff to monitor the old system if it was put on “warm standby mode” as urged by the pilot turned lawmaker Jeremy Tam Man-ho.

“If it is on full standby, we need workers to keep an eye on the system 24 hours. They need to take shifts, which means we need more than the four staff suggested by Tam,” Choi said, adding that the regulator would keep assessing risks to the new upgrade, which went live on 14 November.

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Choi’s words came a day after the HK$1.56 billion flight navigation technology had its most serious problems yet on Tuesday, halting departing flights for 15 minutes at Hong Kong airport.

Planes also disappeared from radar, while fake “ghost” flights appeared on the screens and duplicate aircraft icons popped up on controllers’ displays.

The old software is currently in “cold standby mode” unmanned for six months.

Should the new system fail, the old system would be reactivated, but it would take at least two hours to resume normal flight operations.

“Warm standby”, which legislator Tam suggested should be used, means a skeleton staff sitting inside the old control centre monitoring traffic. It would still take an hour for a full complement of staff to take over and ready the old system to direct flights in and out of the airport.

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The manpower issues are thought to be twofold, several sources familiar with the situation said.

They pointed to an overall shortage of air traffic controllers, but also to the most experienced staff retiring, with younger staff picking up the slack. The younger workers, the sources said, are not fully qualified to work on every workstation which individually handles arrivals, departures or navigating aircraft en route to their destination.

According to the department’s own budget, since 2010 the number of people working in air traffic management has fallen each year, from 529 in 2010 to 487 this year.

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Since controllers have been working with the new and old systems in parallel, staff are said to have been overworked and adding lots of overtime.

One senior air traffic controller said the amount of overtime accumulated was estimated to be in the tens of thousands of hours.