Faulty new HK$1.56 billion air traffic control system stalls flights at Hong Kong airport

Civil aviation service staff warned over leaking information following lawmaker’s criticisms

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 29 November, 2016, 12:37pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 29 November, 2016, 11:30pm

Flights departing Hong Kong’s International Airport were halted for 15 minutes Tuesday after what was the most significant fault to hit the Civil Aviation Department’s new, HK$1.56 billion flight navigation technology.

In a rare display of transparency from the department, and following weeks of controversy over leaked information, director of civil aviation Simon Li Tin-chiu said a data processor had caused the computerised air traffic system to fail to display flight details for some 26 seconds.

The aviation regulator chief said preliminary investigations had shown the system failed temporarily while it was backing up flight data information.

The department last week said radar technology hardware, which supplied information to air traffic control (ATC), was causing issues for the newly-installed Raytheon Auto Trac III system.

Raytheon has been asked to find a fix for the system within 48 hours, and senior executives from the US firm have been asked to meet the civil aviation chief to explain the incident and other teething issues. The department said it is seeking solutions to make the system more reliable.

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

“We will not compromise any flight safety. If we see there is any risk to the system that will cause a safety implication, we will certainly think about switching back to the existing system,” Li said.

The department said repeat failures of air traffic technology would mean more flights being delayed to “safeguard aviation safety”.

The failure of the flight tracking system comes just a day after the department threatened air traffic controllers with disciplinary action for leaking information.

The warning was prompted by a slew of disclosures from pilot-turned-lawmaker Jeremy Tam Man-ho questioning the safety and integrity of a new air traffic control system, which the department repeatedly denied.

Speaking to the Post last week, Philip Butterworth-Hayes, a British air traffic control technology expert, correctly predicted travellers would need to brace for more flight delays.

“There are incompatible pieces of software trying to talk to each other, which is normally the most logical cause of this problem because you’re dealing with so many different generations of software and you try to highly automate, which is where the complications lay,” he said Tuesday.

“With air traffic control software, 99.9 per cent of reliability is simply not good enough, so you have to deal with far more reliable and resilient software in ATC than in any other industry, except part of the nuclear power industry.”

Hong Kong aviation chief defends new air traffic system as airport resumes full flight schedule

An executive at a major Hong Kong airline said the system’s failure was not surprising.

“This [delay] is to be expected, with such a huge overhaul of the system, and to be honest we are very impressed that teething issues are so limited and brief.

“There are huge safety margins built in,” the executive added.

Civic Party lawmaker Tam, who has been at the centre of the recent air safety disclosures, praised the aviation regulator for suspending flights and called on manufacturer Raytheon to identify and fix the problems.

“Going forward they need to sort out why it happened. Certainly Raytheon need to really look into the problem,” Tam said.

Transport and Housing Secretary Anthony Cheung Bing-leung said the bureau would be forming an expert panel to assist in improving the ATC system, and has sought advice from its UK-based consultants, the National Air Traffic Services for further advice.