Even though we’ve all been talking about things like Donald Trump’s successful campaign to become the new US president and the National People’s Congress interpretation of the Basic Law’s Article 104, there’s another event that we need to keep an eye on. That’s the launching of the new Air Traffic Control (ATC) system by the Civil Aviation Department (CAD).
Before I go into why the HK$570 million Autotrac 3 system needs to be taken out of action as soon as possible, here’s some food for thought: The Hong Kong Area Control Centre currently covers all approaching and departing aircraft movement, not just for Hong Kong International Airport, but also for Macau International Airport, as well as any aircraft passing over Hong Kong waters. Hong Kong International Airport alone handles about 1100 flights a day, and that figure is bound to grow in the future, after the completion of the third runway.
Here’s where the problem with the Autotrac 3 lies. More planes means the ATC system has to be faster and more precise, but the AutoTrac 3 doesn’t manage to do that. Controllers during last month’s final testing stage reported that the system was often unresponsive and unable to catch up with real-time aircraft positions.
Despite being given the all-clear by British consultant company National Air Traffic Services (NATS), the AutoTrac 3’s performance is far from satisfactory, with an aircraft disappearing from screens for a full 12 seconds just days it went into full service. Fortunately, the incident occurred while the aircraft could still be physically seen by controllers at the tower. What if the same thing occurs when a plane is no longer visible to the eye? What happens if aircraft disappears for more than 12 seconds?
The AutoTrac 1 will be used as a backup, but restarting an ATC system takes more than an hour – it’s not like booting up your mobile phone which only takes a few minutes. Controllers might have to, for example, send someone from the tower to a room 20 minutes away to turn on the backup system, and order the ever growing number of planes inside Hong Kong’s airspace to hold their positions, while departing flights are effectively grounded until the systems can get back online.
Most aircraft today have systems which prevent accidents, but they do still happen because of human errors. A faulty ATC would mean there is a greater chance of a fatal accident occurring – and thus far there has only been one fatal crash in Chek Lap Kok’s 18-year history as an airport.
Hong Kong is the home of one of the world’s largest aviation transport hubs and it’s vital that we can keep our skies safe. Upgrading our ATC system from a reliable one to one that can’t be properly considered safe for aviation means our skies are dangerous to be in.
Forget about using the most modern technology just because we can, and let’s stick to what we know. Safety comes first.