IN accepting the job as head of the Provisional Airport Authority (PAA), Dr Hank Townsend's first task will be to solve a dispute with some of the world's top consulting engineers over contract conditions. Championed by the Association of Consulting Engineers of Hongkong, more than 20 firms which had been shortlisted for eight design projects, refused to submit tenders by two recent deadlines. After no bids were received by deadlines on January 29 and February 12, the PAA sent a letter to consulting engineers saying tendering had been indefinitely deferred. Affected projects include the designs for temporary utilities, permanent utilities, storm water, sewerage and waste water and the irrigation system. ''This is certainly an urgent issue and I hope Dr Townsend will look into it right away,'' one consulting engineer said yesterday. ''If this situation goes on too long it would be a disaster - I certainly would not be too interested in bidding anymore.'' He warned of delays in the airport project if the dispute dragged on much longer and suggested the six-month viability period usually given to a successful bidder should be made retroactive to compensate for lost time. At the root of the problem are allegations by consulting engineers that contract clauses are onerous and shift all the risk on to their firms. Points of contention include requirements that they take out a large amount of professional insurance and give undertakings that prices would not fluctuate. Several engineers claimed yesterday the tough contracts were symbolic of the tight-fisted style of management at the PAA under Mr Richard Allen. They called on Dr Townsend to adopt a more open and conciliatory approach to the problem. ''I think this is a good opportunity to go forward, I'm not sure there was any way to break the impasse under Allen before,'' one source said. ''We wanted to bid and we had prepared our tenders but now we're sitting waiting for something to happen.'' Secretary of the Association of Consulting Engineers, Mr Edmund Leung Kwong-ho, said members of the executive committee hoped to pay a goodwill visit to Dr Townsend at an early date. Contract arrangements would be high on the agenda. However, the association is still waiting for a response to proposals put forward at earlier meetings this month with the members of the PAA. PAA spokesman Mr Phillip Bruce said it was not unusual for disputes over contractual terms to crop up during large projects such as the Chek Lap Kok airport. ''This is a concern and I am still sure that this can be solved,'' he said. A Construction Advisory Board (CAB) is being set up to provide a more effective communication channel between the construction industry and the Government. The non-statutory board will be chaired initially by the Secretary for Works with eight official members including legislators and 16 unofficial members drawn from contractors, consultants, developers, private corporations, academics, professional and training authorities. The board will advise the Government on issues including promotion and development of the industry resource capacity, self-regulation, construction standards, quality management, education and training, it was announced yesterday. A preliminary meeting will be held, probably next month, to determine the priority of work.