Maximum control needed in the air

Editorial | 30 Nov 2016

For 15 minutes yesterday, all outbound flights at the airport were grounded because of another glitch in the new air traffic control system.

As a result, Director-General of Civil Aviation Simon Li Tin-chui is taking two steps.

One, he has asked the system provider to give a report on the incident within 48 hours, and two, he will establish an expert panel to look at the system.

That's prudent in view of the negative news about the new system since it became fully operational in mid- November. Hopefully, the investigation can prove beyond doubt the replacement system is reliable, and assure everyone that air safety is as outstanding as ever.

Concern over the system can be traced back to the Audit Commission report two years ago. Full operation of the US-made Raytheon AutoTrac III system was planned for 2012, but had to be deferred due to unsatisfactory trial-run results, and nearly HK$90 million extra had to be spent to improve the design.

Partly due to this, Li's predecessor, Norman Lo Shung-man, was criticized by lawmakers. Apparently, Li has inherited some issues to fix.

Switching to the HK$1.5 billion replacement was inevitable, since the old system had been used way beyond its designed capacity, and could be made totally obsolete by a third runway.

It's understandable there were bound to be glitches of some kind in the beginning, although most of the bugs should have been identified and fixed during the trial run. The trial is said to have been thorough and, admittedly, the glitches reported over the past two weeks should have been spotted and addressed some time ago.

Since its full operation, several incidents have been reported.

On Saturday, two planes flew within 7.6 kilometers of each other - less than the international standard of 9.26 kilometers. On November 15, a private jet descended to 122 meters before landing - three times lower than the normal altitude of 518 meters for landing approaches.

It might be argued the system had functioned properly and discovered the risky scenarios in time. But it can also be put that it had failed to prevent the incidents.

In addition, there were other reports of aircraft vanishing for 12 seconds off the radar, a doppelganger of a plane on the screen, and the so-called "ghost plane" appearing and disappearing on the radar for no reason.

Li said that in all circumstances, no aircraft was in danger.

Yesterday's incident was the most disruptive one so far. It involved 26 seconds of blackout on call signs and speed information. Taking no chances, controllers had to abort all takeoffs for 15 minutes, affecting nine flights.

While no plane was in danger during the period, the incident wasn't minor. Was it only a glitch expected of any new system? Or was something central to the design of the system to blame? It's necessary to find out the definitive answer quickly.

While our air traffic controllers are professionally trained, their tools must be reliable too.

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