My Take

Don’t just fix the air-traffic control system, fix the department that runs it

Consider spinning off air traffic control to another entity to avoid any more embarrassing problems

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 08 December, 2016, 12:10am
UPDATED : Thursday, 08 December, 2016, 12:10am

Our civil aviation officials have been busy trying to fix a HK$1.5-plus billion disaster of an air-traffic control system sold to us by US defence company Raytheon.

I hope they do it quickly before putting any lives at risk.

But when all the dust is settled, it may be time to overhaul not just the flight control system but the Civil Aviation Department itself.

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

The department has put Hong Kong in this embarrassing and potentially dangerous situation by its ill-advised purchase of the Auto Trac III system. Yet, the government still depends on the department to rectify the problem. It is even expanding the department’s management in anticipation of the airport’s planned third runway.

There has to be a law of government bureaucracy that says when a major department screws up big time, expand it and throw more taxpayer money at it. Far from giving the department more flight control responsibility, we should consider taking it away. That is the best suggestion I have heard from my fellow columnist Albert Cheng King-hon – except he proposed that the Airport Authority take it over.

It’s hard to see how that could be an improvement. Instead, why not follow what dozens of countries have done in the past three decades to varying degrees of success and improved efficiency? That is by spinning off air-traffic control services into some type of non-profit but private or government co-owned but independent corporation. New Zealand, the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Australia and Canada have all done it. In fact, Nav Canada is considered the best of its kind, with its ability to quickly adopt new technologies, its stakeholder management and oversight structure, and its efficient use of capital and earnings that have kept fees low. The US Congress is currently debating a bill that would create such a model for American air traffic control. This does not mean the civil aviation agencies in those countries are disbanded.

Hong Kong aviation chief tries to allay flight fears over new air traffic control system

But instead of being operators, and usually inefficient and unaccountable at that, they would function only as regulators in charge of enforcing aviation standards and safety. Any such reform idea will be met with fierce resistance from our government, especially the Civil Aviation Department with its empire-building ambitions. But if we take innovation, enterprise and accountability seriously, such a reform is long overdue.