The Civil Aviation Department has confirmed that its radio system malfunctioned briefly last week, forcing its employees to switch to a backup system in order to maintain communication with airplanes.

The incident, which took place last Wednesday, was not announced to the public and only came to light on Monday after an anonymous person posted about the malfunction on the Facebook page “Civil Servant Secrets.”

File Photo: GovHK.

‘Operations unaffected’

The person wrote: “In the afternoon of January 4, the entire radio system went dead and the whole team watched the planes without being able to give them instructions. The incident was not reported in the news.”

The Civil Aviation Department confirmed to HKFP that the alleged incident took place at around 5pm on January 4. It said the “Voice Communication Switching System” (VCSS) failed to function for 30 seconds while its engineers carried out maintenance work.

It denied that the incident occurred as described by the anonymous writer. “Our well-trained employees immediately switched to a backup system in accordance with the procedure so as to continue communicating with and giving instructions to airplanes. After around 30 seconds, the main system was rebooted and resumed operations.”

It said that the VCSS is independent of the new air traffic management system and was provided by a different contractor.

Civil Aviation Department headquarters. File Photo: GovHK.

“The operations of the new air traffic management system was unaffected,” the department said. “The minor incident did not have any impact on air traffic management or aviation safety.”

It said it is working with the contractor to investigate the cause of the malfunction.

‘Shift the blame’

Civic Party lawmaker and pilot Jeremy Tam Man-ho criticised the department for evading responsibility by shifting the blame to its engineers.

“Sources said that the department already found out about the issue on the morning of January 4 and the system malfunctioned briefly at 5pm on that day,” Tam said. “The department’s reasoning was clearly misleading and a move to pass the buck to the maintenance staff.”

“The department said the incident was minor, and that it was not at fault as aviation safety was unaffected. But must we set such a low standard for aviation safety?”

Jeremy Tam. File Photo: Jeremy Tam, via Facebook.

The Civil Aviation Department has been under fire since last November after Tam and local media exposed a number of malfunctions of the new air traffic management system at the Hong Kong airport. The department’s head, Simon Li Tin-chui, denied that the irregularities compromised aviation safety and called such abnormalities “unavoidable.”

Tam slammed the department for always relying on its frontline staff as the “last line of defense” without acknowledging that its communication system is not “100% foolproof.”

“If unfortunately the two systems failed at the same time, Hong Kong’s airspace would experience a ‘vacuum in air traffic management’ during which frontline staff cannot give instructions to pilots,” Tam said.

“We cannot underestimate every ‘minor’ incident and allow aviation safety to be compromised.”


Ellie Ng

Ellie Ng has written for Foreign Policy, the Daily Telegraph, Global Voices Online and others.