New air system blanks out for 26 seconds

Top News | Chan Ho-him 30 Nov 2016

The troubled HK$1.5 billion air control system "blanked out" on details including flight speed for 26 seconds yesterday, causing the suspension of nine outbound flights for 15 minutes.

But Director-General of Civil Aviation Simon Li Tin-chui, who yesterday announced a glitch in the US-made Raytheon AutoTrac III system as soon as it happened, insisted there are no safety concerns over the new system.

He said an expert panel will be formed to probe the system's reliability while the Civil Aviation Department has asked Raytheon for an investigation report on yesterday's incident within 48 hours.

Lawmaker and commercial pilot Jeremy Tam Man-ho said a 26-second malfunction could be dangerous while a pilots' association worried about more flight delays during the Christmas peak season.

Li said that at about 1pm yesterday, the new system could not display flight information including flight speed and call signs, but location and altitude were available. He called a press briefing about five hours later to announce the problem, as the department issued a stern warning against staff revealing problems in the new system to the press.

Li admitted yesterday that 26 seconds was "not ideal" while insisting flight safety was not affected. He said the missing flight data automatically appeared afterward. Nine flights were delayed as departure flights were put on hold for about 15 minutes, he said.

"The flight data processor faced problems when it automatically backed up and synchronized data with the backup processor when two sets of processors could not match the data with the radar system," Li said.

"We agree the system's performance did not match our expectations."

He added that air traffic controllers were still in communication with pilots during the process.

Manufacturer Raytheon was asked to send experts to Hong Kong to probe the incident and come up with an investigation report with solutions within 48 hours.

The new system has faced glitches, including disappearing flights, double images and ghost planes appearing since it went into full operation on November 14.

The Transport and Housing Bureau admitted in a statement last night that yesterday's incident "appears to relate to the new system's performance," which is a matter of concern.

A spokesman from the Airport Authority said flights were operating normally yesterday.

The Civic Party's Tam questioned whether yesterday's malfunction was because the new system could not handle more flights after they returned to normal on Sunday to about 2,000 a day. This followed a 6.9 percent reduction in flights over the past month for smooth transition.

David Newbery, president of the Hong Kong Airline Pilot Association, which represents 2,800 pilots, said although the incident was not terribly severe, the system is not mature enough and "the end result is that we can't have great confidence."

"The ATC is a basic safety system which demands high standards, which ultimately prevents possible collisions," he said. "What we want is a safe system."

The expert panel including scholars, engineers and air-traffic controllers will be set up to look into the recent problems and report to the department.

Li added that backups for the new system were not activated. "We have contained the situation."

The old AutoTrac I system, which has been in use for 18 years, is being kept for six months in "cold standby" mode - but it takes two hours to activate it.



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