A malfunction in the new air traffic system last Thursday affected only three employees who did not require contact with flights, Kevin Choi, the Deputy Director-General of the Civil Aviation Department has said. There are more than 50 employees, some of which directly communicate with flights, so “the area affected is relatively small,” he said on RTHK radio on Monday.

The malfunction was caused by an unusual command which caused a delay in the system and prompted a quick switch to the old system.

Choi said that special arrangements were made to accommodate an airshow at Zhuhai, China. Whilst using the new system, a staff member had entered information related to a flight which was flying in and out of Zhuhai, he said. The flight did not need to be managed by the Hong Kong area and the system asked why the staff had entered such data. The staff, thinking it was syntax error, changed the input style of the flight plan.

Hong Kong International Airport. Photo: GovHK.

The commands caused the the system to put in place a protection mechanism for three employees which delays the system’s response, said Choi.

He also said that, if problems arose in the new system, they are able to switch back to the old one and investigate what happened. He also said that during the testing stage, the old system is also performing simulations using real-time data in order to protect airline safety.

“This is a relatively special case, I think… I agree that with examples like this, we don’t want to see them,” he said, “we definitely hope to improve the system until it is perfect.”

Photo: GovHK.

Speaking on the same radio show, the Civic Party’s Jeremy Tam Man-ho, an airline pilot who was at the scene, said that he heard unusual sounds prior to the malfunction but was reassured that they were not urgent.

Tam said that although the Civil Aviation Department claimed that they had the old and new systems running at the same time, he questioned whether the department was telling the truth about the incident.

Cathay Pacific planes at the Hong Kong International Airport. Photo: GovHK.

Tam claimed that when the department attempted to replicate the error, the problem arose again. “At this point, I cannot trust the new system,” he said.

Tam said that a foreign expert will be completing a report on the incident, and if the Civil Aviation Department follows the advice given by the expert, then he may feel more confident.

Chantal Yuen

Chantal Yuen is a Hong Kong journalist interested in issues dealing with religion and immigration. She majored in German and minored in Middle Eastern studies at Princeton University.