Hong Kong pilots say government trailing the rest of the world on air accident investigations

Pilots’ group calls for independent investigative body

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 04 September, 2016, 8:04am
UPDATED : Sunday, 04 September, 2016, 8:04am

Senior Hong Kong pilots are at loggerheads with the government over how accidents during flights should be investigated.

The Hong Kong Airline Pilots Association (HKALPA), which represents 2,800 cockpit crew across all local commercial airlines, has called for the creation of an autonomous body to investigate incidents. If that does not happen, it said the Civil Aviation Department should admit to the global air safety agency that it does not comply with international standards.

In November, the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) will implement enhanced rules which make it clear that air accidents should be investigated by an independent body rather than the civil aviation authority of a country.

Letters seen by the Post between HKALPA and Transport and Housing Secretary Professor Anthony Cheung Bing-leung show major differences on the matter.

Among pilots’ key concerns are the director general of the Civil Aviation Department also being chief air accident investigator, and frontline investigators being sourced from within the department to carry out detective work.

David Newbery, a member of HKALPA’s safety committee, said: “An investigation may call into question some of the regulator’s procedures. The Civil Aviation Department is responsible for air traffic, licensing, and regulations.

“So there’s always a suspicion when a body is investigating itself, it’s rather economical with the truth.”

“There is no way they can claim to be independent. It is as simple as that,” Newbery, who is also a globally accredited accident investigator, added.

But the government said procedures were in place to avoid direct conflicts of interest, like people being removed from probes, outside parties invited in, unsatisfactory rulings appealed, and the Civil Aviation Department hosting investigators in special facilities inside its headquarters.

The aviation regulator and Transport and Housing Bureau said they attached “great importance” to the “independence and impartiality” of such work, and remained compliant with rules and regulations.

In a joint statement, a government spokesman said it was studying how to improve air accident probes after the ICAO changes. “We are considering various options with reference to international practices and our local circumstances,” he said.

Newbery went further, reiterating his call for an independent body to have powers to probe all rail, road, air and marine accidents. He said Hong Kong was one of the only developed countries lacking an independent investigating authority.

Hong Kong needs to speed up its reform, or risk languishing in the 1950s, he said.

“I’m sure that there are a lot of third-world countries where the Civil Aviation Department chief is also the chief inspector of accidents,” he said. “However, developed countries have nearly all made the change.”

Anthony Philbin, head of communications for ICAO, said he was “very confident” all member states would comply with the new standards.

“Our history is based on change being driven through consensus and cooperation, and there is no reason to expect a lack of compliance to this new provision,” he said.

A failure to comply with the rules would lead to few punishments, but if changes were not made by the time Hong Kong is next audited by ICAO, aviation safety could be downgraded.