Internal disagreement over the reliability of an air traffic management system has divided the Civil Aviation Department, with frontline staff calling for a new round of tests after an instance of “catastrophic failure” on the part of the system in July, while department heads pushed forward the system and denied that there was controversy over test results, Ming Pao reported.

The Civil Aviation Department has come under fire for continuously delaying the starting date for Autotrac 3 (AT3), a new HK$570 million air traffic management system designed by US defence company Raytheon. However, the safety of the system was questioned in reports obtained by Ming Pao and put together by the Air Traffic Management Standards Office, the division in charge of conducting safety assessments. The report stressed the importance of locating planes accurately in bad weather and doubted the ability of the new system to do this, stating that the AT3 system’s reliability during crises is low.

hong kong international airport
Hong Kong International Airport. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

The AT3 system needed to pass four major tests before it could be used, one of them being a reliability test. In July, when the tests were run using actual data to assess whether the system could function for 31 days in a row, the system failed to execute an order after the input of data in one instance. This was classified as a “catastrophic failure” and a new round of tests was recommended. The Department, however, said that it was not accurate to say that the system had been paralysed. and that the results had been due to abnormality of the input data.

Employees of the Civic Aviation Department questioned the safety of the system and worried that department heads had violated terms of the contract regarding the system for the sole purpose of ensuring that it would pass the tests. They said that contracts signed between Raytheon and the Civil Aviation Department stipulated that the tests would have to be stopped immediately if a serious malfunctioning of the system occurred; the Department would then have to locate the source of the problem and run the 31-day long tests all over again. The Department, however, claimed that there was no such contractual term.

Civil Aviation Department said in response to the allegations that priority has been given to the project and that it has adopted 90% of the recommendations made after the incident in July. A spokesman for the Department also said that while the report pointed out areas that need to be improved, it did not use terms such as “dangerous” or “not recommended”. The Department said that they very much valued the suggestions of frontline air traffic management staff, and that they will follow up on the claims.

Alan Leong Kah-kit, a member of the Legislative Council’s Public Accounts Committee who took part in the consultation on the air traffic control system deal, said that it was evident that there were problems with the system and he questioned why the Department had not reported them to the Committee. He also said that he had received internal complaints from employees of the Civil Aviation Department from time to time about the AT3 system, and said the best way to resolve the issue would be to employ an independent consultant to reassess the air traffic control contract.

Karen is a journalist and writer covering politics and legal affairs in Hong Kong for HKFP. She has also written features on human rights, public space, regional legal developments, social and grassroots activism, and arts & culture. She is a BA and LLB graduate from the University of Hong Kong.