Safety questioned at Hong Kong Airlines

Company defends its record as captain speaks out on what he calls 'terrible standards'

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 21 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 21 July, 2013, 12:38pm

As Christopher Allan prepared to jet out of Hong Kong with his family before taking up a new job overseas, one thing was certain about their travel arrangements: They wouldn't be flying with Hong Kong Airlines.

"I wouldn't put my wife and kids on Hong Kong Airlines - I really wouldn't," the 56-year-old said of one of the world's youngest and fastest-growing airlines.

Like any paying customer, Allan is entitled to choose whatever airline he feels happiest with. What makes his choice intriguing, however, is that Allan was moving abroad after working as a senior captain and examiner of pilots on Hong Kong Airlines.

His lack of faith in the airline, he says, is based upon his experiences in two years as a pilot with Hong Kong Airlines and the "terrible standards" he claims to have encountered while testing pilots in simulators last year.

A former British Royal Air Force pilot, Allan spent more than 21 years with Cathay Pacific where he flew Boeings and worked as a pilot examiner before retiring and then joining Hong Kong Airlines in 2010 where he retrained to become an Airbus captain.

Two years later - and just two months after being appointed an examiner - Allan resigned from his position over what he claimed were worryingly poor standards among the pilots he tested and his general concern over safety issues at the seven-year-old airline, which has a fleet of 28 aircraft.

Weeks later, while he was serving out his notice, he says he was asked by his manager to "go easy" when he conducted a mandatory six-monthly test in a flight simulator on a senior airline executive who still captains some flights.

When he refused the request, Allan says, he was removed from examining duties before the test. He responded by contacting the Civil Aviation Department and asking it to sit in on the examination which, Allan says, the executive duly failed.

Allan and another serving Hong Kong Airlines pilot called for a meeting with department officials at which they presented documents outlining a series of alleged irregularities in Hong Kong Airlines practices, which they asked officials to investigate.

It was what Allan saw as the department's unwillingness to act upon his complaints that made him go public with his concerns as he left Hong Kong to take up a new position as a pilot with Etihad.

Hong Kong Airlines declined to comment directly on Allan's complaints, but said in a statement: "Safety has always been our number one priority and will always be … We always comply with all safety standards set by the Hong Kong Civil Aviation Department, which are regarded as the strictest in the world."

A department spokesperson denied Allan's complaints had been overlooked and said in a statement: "An investigation was conducted in response to Mr Allan's complaints and so far there is no objective evidence to support Mr Allan's complaints."

In an interview shortly before he left Hong Kong, Allan told the South China Morning Post that his experiences as an examiner, giving mandatory six-monthly tests to the airline's community of pilots, had appalled him.

"In the short time from August to October, when I resigned, I saw such terrible standards throughout the airline that I was honour-bound to hand in my notice," he said. "There is nothing worse in aviation than working for a company that doesn't respect safety and standards. At Cathay, I failed one or two guys in 21 years. At this airline, it was two a week. They were that bad. The standards were so poor."

Allan said: "From personally examining individuals in the [flight] simulator, I have seen standards I have never seen in 36 years in aviation."

In the simulator tests he conducted as an examiner, he says he encountered "captains who could not do approaches … guys drifting off the runway and almost crashing, totally misunderstanding the whole safety issues of the aircraft and losing an engine".

Allan described the standard of pilots at the airline as "minimal". "There are some good pilots, but there is an overwhelming number of very average to below average pilots and that was reflected in their failure rate," he said. "When I resigned I said to the director of flight ops, 'I'm sorry but I cannot stay with this airline because I am being associated with a standard that is below industry levels'.

"His reply to me was, 'I had to get aircraft airborne and people in seats to fly them. We will get better'.

"I told him, 'You are not doing anything to reach the standard'."

In his resignation letter to the director of flight operations, S.Y. Chow on October 22, Allan wrote: "It is with regret that my aspirations for a career in [Hong Kong Airlines] do not coincide with that of the company and management. On too many occasions, I find my principles and standards in conflict with those of our daily operation."

Within weeks, Allan says he was asked by a manager three or four days ahead of a scheduled test to "go easy" on a senior airline executive who was to take a routine examination in a simulator. "He [the manager] said 'Be lenient on him because he doesn't fly a lot'," he said. "Basically, I said to the manager I would treat him the same as everyone else. He then chose to take me off the roster and put another examiner on. I saw the roster change and called up crew control and said 'Why was I taken off the check?' The crew controller said they wanted a Mandarin-speaking examiner, which is totally against regulations. The check is done in English. I then called the company and asked why I was taken off the check. They put me back on the check, but a day later they removed me from examining duties."

Allan said he then alerted the department, asking it to do a no-notice check on the exam. They did as he requested and the executive failed the simulator check and subsequently had to undergo retraining, he said.

Asked about the incident, the department spokesman said: "Mr Allan made a formal written complaint against Hong Kong Airlines on 12 November 2012. The CAD immediately performed an inspection on the flying training of [Hong Kong Airlines] on 13 November 2012. No anomalies were found and Mr Allan was informed of the result."

Stripped of his examining duties, Allan and another serving pilot then compiled a dossier of alleged irregularities and safety issues in the airline's operations, and called for a meeting with department officials.

A meeting at the department was held on December 5 involving the two pilots, three senior department officials and a representative from Hong Kong Airlines, according to documents seen by the Post.

A dossier of e-mails and internal reports on incidents involving Hong Kong Airlines planes, which were allegedly either not reported or not acted upon correctly was offered to the department officials at the meeting, but not accepted, according to Allan.

"I am very disappointed with the CAD," he said. "The CAD has always been an authority I have looked up to and here they are not even doing their job."

The department spokesman said Allan was asked to provide documentary proof of his allegations "to support our investigation" after the meeting on December 5. "No further documents have been received," the statement said.

"Nevertheless, in view of the serious allegation, albeit verbal or without solid evidence, the CAD has performed a thorough investigation and so far no objective evidence could be found to substantiate Mr Allan's allegation."

Any suggestion that the department had not taken seriously or properly investigated Allan's claims was unfair and unfounded, the statement said. "Safety is always our top and utmost priority, and therefore we treat every enquiry and complaint against safety seriously," it said.

"We have been handling Mr Allan's complaint according to established procedures, and despite the lack of document proofs, we investigated each of Mr Allan's allegation(s)."

In response to Mr Allan's complaints that safety standards are so low at Hong Kong Airlines that it could be at risk of an accident, the statement said: "While the CAD will not comment on individual operator's performance, we would like to reiterate that Hong Kong Airlines is one of the airlines holding a Hong Kong Air Operator's Certificate.

"Its operations are regulated and monitored closely by the CAD. To ensure safe operations and the operator's compliance with the CAD's requirements, we regularly hold meetings with HKA, conduct various inspections and audits on flight operations and airworthiness aspects similar to what we do to other local airlines."

In a written statement, an airline spokesman said: "Hong Kong Airlines has a policy of not commenting on matters concerning our former employees."

However, the statement went on: "Hong Kong Airlines is committed to growing in Hong Kong. In the last two years, we have put great resources and capital in sustaining this commitment.

"We now provide more than 2,000 jobs [and] contribute to the prosperity of the Hong Kong SAR. Our drive to realise our goals is not and will never be at the expense of safety and standards.

"As a young and growing airline, Hong Kong Airlines is in need of human resources, especially those in critically important positions, which include the pilots. In the process, we have been reaching out to attract the best personnel, but retaining only those who are able to meet our standards.

"We make no apology for making sure that only competent and safe pilots are at the control of our aircraft."

The statement concluded: "We would also like to add that all reports that affect safety are scrutinised and acted upon, without hindrance or influence by our top management, unless they are baseless, frivolous and not substantiated."

Allen, for his part, insists his only motivation in speaking out was to respond to his professional conscience.

"I am not trying to bring this airline down. I am trying to bring it up," he said. "If they don't sort this out and administer a proper standard, they [Hong Kong Airlines] will have a hull loss - in other words a crash.

"Colleagues have said to me 'If you say nothing, you will have resigned, walked away and taken a job with Etihad.' "They told me 'If there is a crash, people will say 'What did you say? Who did you tell?'"