Hong Kong aviation

Aviation authority to reconsider retiring old air traffic control system in light of latest glitch

Previous system currently on cold standby and can be used with one or two hours of preparation

PUBLISHED : Monday, 10 April, 2017, 11:33am
UPDATED : Monday, 10 April, 2017, 9:57pm

Hong Kong’s Civil Aviation Department will take into account its new air traffic control system’s latest glitch before deciding whether to retire the old one next month as scheduled, Deputy Director-General of Civil Aviation Kevin Choi said on Monday.

Choi made the comments two days after the occurrence of another aviation glitch, when air traffic controllers temporarily lost information on the positioning and altitude of some flights. That triggered the deployment of a backup system for the first time since the HK$1.56 billion Raytheon Auto Trac III went live in November.

“The system will still be here this month. It is now on cold standby mode, meaning that if the need arises, we can still use it after one to two hours (of preparation),” Choi said on a Commercial Radio programme.

Don’t leave passengers up in the air over traffic control system problems

Asked if the CAD would take into account the latest glitch and not retire the old system for now, Choi said: “We will take that into consideration. We will also talk to our expert committee about this … we will have a comprehensive consideration.”

The latest issue was caused by the accumulation of air traffic controllers’ preference settings, which exceeded the system limit.

Choi said that when each of the some 400 traffic controllers logged on to the air traffic control system using their own password, they could set their own “preferences”, such as text size and screen brightness.

The system allows about 5,500 preferences in total, meaning that each controller could set about 13. The number of preferences set exceeded the limit on Saturday, triggering the glitch.

When the glitch took place, CAD deferred giving clearance to departure flights for about 15 minutes. It insisted that aviation safety was not affected by the incident.

I had hoped that the new system would run better. It turns out it is taking a turn for the worse
Jeremy Tam, lawmaker

The new system was developed by US-based manufacturer Raytheon and is capable of handling up to 8,000 flight movements a day – five times more than its predecessor. It was purchased to cope with the increasing air traffic at Hong Kong International Airport, as the third runway is expected to be completed in 2024.

Civic Party lawmaker Jeremy Tam Man-ho, a qualified pilot, said the latest glitch was a “low-level error”.

“I had hoped that the new system would run better. It turns out it is taking a turn for the worse,” he said on the same radio programme.

The new system has run into a spate of trouble since its test run began last year. In October, air traffic controllers input data they should not have, and the system started to run very slowly. The CAD resorted to switching back to the old system to direct traffic.