Hong Kong aviation chief admits ‘more frequent’ glitches with new air traffic control system

In latest development, lawmaker says a plane disappeared from radar for two minutes last week

PUBLISHED : Friday, 25 November, 2016, 11:47am
UPDATED : Friday, 25 November, 2016, 11:27pm

Hong Kong’s new, hi-tech, air traffic control system has seen more frequent technical glitches since it went live two weeks ago, the city’s aviation regulator has admitted for the first time.

As part of damage control, the Civil Aviation Department gave the media a tour of its multibillion-dollar technology and facilities at the airport on Friday, bringing out senior civil servants to defend the system from a barrage of recent criticism.

Director of Civil Aviation Simon Li Tin-chui said improvements were being worked on, amid doubts about the reliability and safety of the technology.

Six more planes vanished off Hong Kong’s new air traffic control system, lawmaker claims

“It is not unusual for this kind of occurrence to be more frequent when the new system is in operation for the first few weeks. We hope through fine-tuning and enhancement the situation will improve,” Li said. “I would like to stress there are no safety implications.”

Li declined to detail all the problems the system had thrown up, saying he did not want to cause public panic, and dismissing the issues reported so far as “trivial”.

His deputy, Kevin Choi, said: “After launching the system for more than 10 days, no flights have been delayed and it is able to handle 1,800 flights per day.”

Last night, lawmaker Jeremy Tam Man-ho, who has been at the centre of revelations about the new system’s faults, made fresh claims that an aircraft had gone missing on radar for two minutes soon after take-off last week.

The government refused to comment on Tam’s latest allegation. Both sides have been busy with claims, counter-claims and explanations for weeks.

In a related development, authorities confirmed that flight schedules would return to normal on Sunday after being cut by 7 per cent to accommodate the transition from the old to the new air traffic control system. Authorities said they were confident about its reliability.

As for recent problems such as planes disappearing from radar screens and phantom aircraft appearing, the CAD’s engineering experts blamed the city’s radar coverage, saying it constrained the ability of the new software to track flights accurately.

Occasionally spotty radar signals combined with the effects of weather, curvature of the earth, lack of full radar coverage or obstacles such as ships or airport buildings, caused issues with both the old and new air traffic system, the department said.

Philip Butterworth-Hayes, a British air traffic control technology expert, agreed with the CAD that the glitches did not constitute a safety issue, but he noted they would cause more traffic delays.

However, he said the fact that the CAD was blaming hardware, such as radar, was “unusual” because the fault lay with the software of the air traffic control technology. The problems cited by the CAD were issues that should have been ironed out decades ago, he added.

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

Hong Kong Airline Pilot Association president David Newbery said: “I find it strange they look at weather and terrain as something new, blaming that, and ships have been around for a while, so has the terrain even longer, and the weather even longer – how come that is a problem?

“They are trying to play the blame game. It is not about blaming someone or thing; this is all about whether we have a fully functioning air traffic system or not. If we haven’t, what are the solutions?”

In the longer term, Hong Kong will replace ground-based radar technology with satellite-based flight tracking to monitor airspace around the city fully, which is currently not possible.

The HK$1.56 billion system revamp, after a four-year delay, has been running since November 14 despite opposition from some frontline controllers and reports of malfunctions.