Jet fell off radar for longer than usual, top Hong Kong aviation official admits

Director general of civil aviation says new system ‘not ideal’, but insists there was no safety risk

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 November, 2016, 11:52pm
UPDATED : Monday, 21 November, 2016, 12:22am

Hong Kong’s new air traffic control system plunged into deeper controversy yesterday when the city’s aviation chief admitted that it was “not ideal” and “relatively long” for a flight to drop off radar for 12 seconds, as one did last week.

In admitting the disappearance was longer than similar problems under the old system, director general of civil aviation Simon Li Tin-chui said the latest incident suggested no safety risk.

Li said yesterday that the International Civil Aviation Organisation requires air traffic systems to refresh and show aircraft locations on the radar screen at least once every five seconds.

Hong Kong’s Civil Aviation Department (CAD) has set the new HK$1.56 billion Auto Trac III system to refresh flight locations every four seconds.

But last Tuesday, a day after the new system was fully launched, a flight disappeared from the screen for 12 seconds.

“The operation of the new system has been very smooth since November 14,” Li said. “We now handle more than 1,800 flights a day and no flight has been delayed because of the new system.

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

“It’s a complex electronic system. Even though our colleagues have tried their very best, in the initial stage, it is possible that we could run into special situations. The CAD has a set of procedures to guide the controllers to ensure aviation safety.”

He said all controllers had sufficient training.

Raymond Li, assistant director general of civil aviation, said the plane had been near Sunny Bay, Lantau, when it disappeared.

But he said controllers could still see the plane with their own eyes because it was nearby.

He said there were various possible reasons for a flight to drop from the screen, including hills blocking signals. The department had yet to identify the cause of the 12-second disappearance, but had sent information to manufacturer Raytheon to find it.

The CAD is keeping the old system for six months, in case the new one has more problems. Aviation chiefs said countries usually only keep the old system for two to three months when switching.

The CAD said it saw no need to limit flight movements during the busy Christmas season, expressing confidence in its new system and its controllers.

Shanghai aviation authorities question why air traffic controllers cleared two aircraft for same runway

Pilot-turned-legislator Jeremy Tam Man-ho questioned why the CAD reported to Raytheon if it was really confident in the system.

“Just because the controllers could still see the plane in question with their eyes does not mean that this is a non-issue,” Tam said.

Former civil aviation chief Albert Lam Kwong-yu said the radar might have been affected by the weather.

He said a new system could be expected to run into trouble initially. He said it could take between a year and 18 months to fine-tune the system.

The CAD and its new system have been troubled by a spate of controversies recently.

Controllers have alleged they were forced to give positive responses to a survey on the system by an independent British company. It was also revealed that controllers failed to detect that two flight paths were overlapping, for two aircraft which could have come into contact in less than a minute after the situation was rectified.