Clear The Air News Blog Rotating Header Image

April 15th, 2015:

Sky’s near the limit above Hong Kong’s airport as holding times increase

29 March 2015

Danny Lee

Less than a mile out from the north runway at Chek Lap Kok on March 5, strong and squally winds start to rattle Hong Kong Airlines flight 253 from Taipei.

With the sea only 150 metres below, the landing gear deployed and touchdown near, the aircraft’s engines power up, sending the plane skyward. The landing is aborted.

The pilot calmly tells passengers: “We do not have the extra fuel to re-route a second approach for landing into Hong Kong. And as such, I have decided, for our safety, we will be diverting to Shenzhen for refuelling.”

The flight was one of a dozen jets diverted that day due to a phenomenon known as wind shear. Scientists at the Observatory said the event was the worst to hit the airport since records began in 2011. Lantau is notorious for the phenomenon of rapid changes in windspeed and direction near the ground.

Passengers on Flight 253 reported that the pilot said the winds “were very, very strong”, and as such it “wasn’t safe” to make the landing.

While the weather situation was unusual, the events of March 5 also reflect an everyday problem – namely the congested skies above Chek Lap Kok.

And it is a problem that needs a solution after the Executive Council approved the Airport Authority’s HK$141.5 billion plan for a third runway that will expand the airport’s capacity.

Flight 253 was a case in point. Like other flights, it would have entered a holding pattern, a kind of highway in the skies where planes are kept apart, before the aircraft are manoeuvred, one by one, into the landing queue.

But Flight 253 was in a holding queue of 12 planes. By the time it attempted to land, it lacked the 40 minutes of extra fuel it required to “go around” and attempt another landing in Hong Kong without falling foul of the rules on minimum fuel levels. The Civil Aviation Department said the minimum fuel levels were set based on UN aviation safety rules.

Landing with good weather in Shenzhen, the aircraft and passengers waited on the tarmac for four hours before the plane was refuelled and returned to Hong Kong.

The other 11 planes also diverted to Shenzhen and Macau, while 17 landed safely at Chek Lap Kok at the second attempt.

The longer holding times – which can now stretch up to 15 minutes, according to pilots’ unions – reflect how busy Chek Lap Kok is getting.

For most of the day, the airport handles its maximum 65 flights per hour – a figure that increases to 67 per hour from tomorrow and 68 from October, the highest it can ever go with only two runways.

With 391,000 flights handled last year, the maximum capacity under a two-runway configuration, 420,000 arrivals and departures per year, is not far away.

The problem is made worse by a lack of cooperation over airspace in the Pearl River Delta, which leaves aircraft from Hong Kong unable to enter the mainland until they reach a minimum height of 4,785 metres.

Last week Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying said the central government would help to resolve airspace integration issues with Hong Kong and Macau by 2020, which could see an integration of airspace. But details of how such integration will work remain sketchy.

Airport Authority chief executive Fred Lam Tin-fuk said aviation officials and their mainland counterparts had conducted a simulation study based on a 2007 directional plan, which he said was “technically feasible”. But he shared no further details.

Pilot unions warn that unless the airspace question is resolved, more diversions are likely.

The Hong Kong Airline Pilots Association says the airport and airspace saturation problem is “further complicated” by the need to accommodate unplanned go-arounds like those on March 5.

“These additional delays can compromise planned arrival fuel [predictions] and at some point inbound aircraft will make the call whether to continue holding or to divert,” said Darryl Soligo, president of the association, which represents pilots at Cathay Pacific, Dragonair, Hong Kong Airlines and Hong Kong Express.

He said saturation in the aviation system left little capacity to deal with even the occasional wrinkle. But he warned that “pouring pavement in Hong Kong by way of a third runway is not a solution in itself”.

Airspace rationalisation is an “equally important component” and if airspace negotiations are not successful, then the Airport Authority will lose the support of a key ally – pilots.

Congestion means pilots might have to divert to airports further afield even before attempting to land at Chek Lap Kok, experts say.

Brian Legge, a wind shear expert and member of the association’s technical and safety committee, said: “Without resolving the air traffic services problems first, the result will likely be more ground delays, increased aircraft holding, and a risk of overloading air traffic controllers during periods of high volume coupled with weather or operational related challenges.”

According to the union, Cathay Pacific has acknowledged in recent years that its short-haul regional flights needed extra fuel to accommodate the time spent holding.

The number of diversions has steadily risen since 2000 – when 68 flights had to abort landing attempts.

Last year 335 aircraft had to abort landings – the second highest figure ever recorded at the airport. Some 233 were caused by weather. The rest were classified as doing so for operational reasons.

Management sources at Hong Kong Airlines said overcrowding had become “challenging” to manage. But its spokesman expressed support for a third runway, saying: “We are confident that the [Airport] Authority will make the most adequate arrangement after taking different parties’ views into consideration.”

But while the third runway is touted as the only way to increase capacity, problems do remain,

Besides airspace management, the Civil Aviation Department’s consultant on third runway matters, Britain’s National Air Traffic Service, has identified problems with escape routes – the routes that planes take after aborting landings.

And concerns remain about the cost of the runway, after a series of massive public works projects bust their budgets amid long delays. Most notoriously, the high-speed railway to Guangzhou has been pushed back at least two years to 2017, with costs rising to at least HK$71.5 billion from HK$65 billion.

One key factor in the delays and cost overruns has been a shortage of construction workers, with the industry warning it will be short of 10,000 workers within four years. The shortage and the demand from elsewhere as the government looks to stimulate public and private house building have cast doubts on the target of having the runway in place by 2023.

There is also environmental concern as the runway needs reclamation on a massive scale, further impingeing on the habitat of the endangered Chinese white dolphin.

The funding plan – under which the Airport Authority will pay for the work without seeking extra cash from the government – is also controversial. Some lawmakers are fuming because they will not get to scrutinise the budget plans, despite the fact that the authority is government owned and will stop paying dividends to the public purse.

And part of the funding will have to come from airport users including passengers, who will pay a HK$180 per person departure fee.

Cathay Pacific and Dragonair have expressed strong support for the third runway, but have cried foul over the funding arrangement, under which they would pay higher landing and parking fees.

March 5

Air New Zealand
5.50am, NZ87 from Auckland, two landing attempts before diverting to Macau

Cathay Pacific
6.10am, CX829 from Toronto, aborted landing once and diverted to Shenzhen
* Cathay flights from Delhi, Taipei and Nagoya landed in Hong Kong on second attempt

China Southern Airlines
9.47am, CZ311 from Jieyang , diverted back to Jieyang

5.55am, KA932 from Manila, performed two unsuccessful landing attempts before diverting to Macau
10.07am, KA857 from Shanghai, aborted landing and diverted to Shenzhen
* Jets from Yangon, Taichung, Beijing, Zhengzhou and Shanghai aborted landings before landing in Hong Kong

Hong Kong Airlines
6am, HX774 from Bangkok, aborted landing once and diverted to Macau
6.15am, HX708 from Denpasar (Bali), aborted landing once and diverted to Macau
7.21am, HX9269 from Taipei, aborted landing once and diverted to Macau
9.53am, HX453 from Chengdu , aborted landing once and diverted to Shenzhen
2.15pm, HX253 from Taipei, aborted landing once and diverted to Shenzhen
*Three more HK Airlines jets from Macau, Taipei and Naha, Okinawa aborted landings before landing in Hong Kong

Tiger Airways
9.52am, TR2062 from Singapore, aborted landing and diverted to Shenzhen
12.03pm, TR2052 from Singapore, performed two unsuccessful landing attempts before diverting to Shenzhen

* Taiwan’s China Airlines had two go-arounds. United Airlines, Russia’s S7 Airlines, Philippine Airlines and Jetstar Asia planes aborted landings before landing in Hong Kong

Source: Flightradar24

Three-colour recycle bins are window dressing and a sham

02 April 2015

I refer to the letter by Wong Hon-meng, assistant director, Environmental Protection Department (“Promoting recycling and waste reduction are top priorities”, March 23).

He claims that by 2022, Hong Kong will reduce its per capita waste generated by 40 per cent.

How has the department come up with this percentage? Most likely it has simply copied statistics from Taipei and Seoul where a 40 per cent reduction was achieved after waste charging took effect. But those cities developed comprehensive measures to sort and separate waste before they implemented waste charging, as pointed out in my letter (“Waste charge futile without separation of rubbish at source”, February 24).

The three-colour recycling bins are window dressing and a sham: only 700 tonnes of recyclables are collected every year, less than 0.02 per cent of the waste produced in Hong Kong. Operated by the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department, a clear accounting is yet to be published on how the collected waste is being disposed.

The department still does not have correct data as to how much waste is being recycled, having admitted previous figures were wrong, double counting recycled waste shipped to the mainland with that in transit through Hong Kong from overseas.

The HK$1 billion Recycling Fund Wong mentions is more window dressing. It is 3.5 per cent of the HK$29 billion budget for the incinerator and landfills expansion.

The proposed community education and recycling centres to be built in the 18 districts are handouts to pro-government environmental groups and subsidies to companies that collect recycled waste and ship it to the mainland, where 90 per cent of Hong Kong’s recycled waste ends up.

Despite talking about “policy” and “campaign”, the department has no intention of truly pursuing a recycling policy as many countries have.

There is no policy to develop a sustainable indigenous recycling industry, no statutory requirement nor public education on how to separate waste at source. Despite the many so-called inspection trips overseas by senior officials, paid for by taxpayers’ money, no insight and plan were presented on how other countries promote and implement effective recycling.

Given the above, it is ironic that Hong Kong will be hosting an international conference on solid waste management in May. Environment Secretary Wong Kam-sing will be the keynote speaker. What is he going to say?

Tom Yam, Lantau

Dutch government taken to court on climate change

Urgenda Foundation director Marjan Minnesma (centre) joined campaigners at the hearing

Campaigners in the Netherlands are taking the government to court for allegedly failing to protect its citizens from climate change.

The class action lawsuit, involving almost 900 citizens, aims to force the government to cut emissions faster.

The first hearing opened in the Hague on Tuesday.

It is said to be the first time in Europe that citizens have tried to hold a state responsible for alleged inaction on climate change.

It is also believed to be the first case in the world in which human rights are used – alongside domestic law – as a legal basis to protect citizens against climate change.

The campaigners, led by the Urgenda Foundation, want the judges to compel the Dutch government to reduce its carbon emissions to 40% below 1990s levels by 2020.

Prominent Dutch DJ Gregor Salto is among those taking part in the lawsuit

The activists also want the court to declare that global warming of more than 2C will lead to a violation of fundamental human rights worldwide.

Among the plaintiffs is Joos Ockels, wife of the late astronaut Wubbo Ockels, along with DJ Gregor Salto and Nasa climate scientist Prof James Hansen.

“Everybody is waiting for the government to take action but the government has done so little. If the case succeeds, they will be forced to take action,” Salto told the UK’s Guardian newspaper.

The EU has pledged to cut emissions by 40% by 2030, while the US promised last month to reduce its carbon emissions 26-28% by 2025.

However, analysts say the pledges being made ahead of a global deal in Paris in December are not strong enough to stop temperatures rising above the internationally agreed maximum of 2C.

The 2C target was acknowledged at the UN climate convention (UNFCCC) in 2009 as the threshold of dangerous climate change, which scientists say is largely caused by the use of fossil fuels.

Sceptics say the threat from climate change is exaggerated.

Commentators say it remains to be seen whether the Dutch court is able and willing to rule on an issue that is still the subject of scientific debate.

However, Jaap Spier, Advocate-General to the Dutch Supreme Court, was quoted by the newspaper Trouw earlier in April saying that courts could force countries to adopt “effective climate policies”.

Beijing backs third runway

Beijing fully supports the construction of a third runway at Hong Kong International Airport, the mainland’s civil aviation chief Li Jiaxing said yesterday.

Beijing fully supports the construction of a third runway at Hong Kong International Airport, the mainland’s civil aviation chief Li Jiaxing said yesterday.

Li gave the project the stamp of approval when visiting transport secretary Anthony Cheung Bing-leung called on him yesterday.

Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office deputy director Zhou Bo also told Cheung he supported the controversial third runway.

This implies Beijing will back Hong Kong for the rights to use Shenzhen airspace – one of the issues lawmakers and concerned parties used to block funding for the runway.

Cheung visited Li and other Civil Aviation Administration of China officials in Beijing yesterday before paying a visit to the Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office.

“Li said he fully supported Hong Kong to continue to consolidate and enhance its status as an international aviation hub and also expressed full support for the network plan for the third runway,” Cheung said.

“In the process, we both agreed to address the needs for the common development of each airport in the region.”

He said the next step was for the tripartite working group made up of CAAC, Hong Kong’s Civil Aviation Department and Civil Aviation Authority of Macau to cooperate and enact measures set out under the 2007 Pearl River Delta airspace management plan.

Cheung said it is hoped the airports in the region can push for airspace cooperation in the delta in a pragmatic manner.

“In the Pearl River region there are several airports, including Hong Kong International Airport, Guangzhou Baiyun Airport, Shenzhen Bao’an Airport, Macau International Airport and Zhuhai Jinwan Airport,” Cheung said.

“There is a need for further development by these airports because air traffic in the PRD region is growing rapidly and all airports are facing a strong demand and need for further development.

“To better utilize the airspace in the PRD, the key is improving management and coordination, and that definitely needs the full cooperation of several airports and relevant government departments.”

Under the Airport Authority’s plan, a three-runway system would handle up to 100 million passengers and about nine million tonnes of cargo per year by 2030.

The authority’s three-runway system was given the green light by the Executive Council on March 17. It could be completed by 2023 if construction begins next year.

Departing passengers will be charged HK$180 from next year and airlines a further 15 percent more to help fund the runway.

Watchdog probe as car owners fume over tests

The Ombudsman will investigate whether the Environmental Protection and Transport departments conducted adequate planning and coordination before the implementation of a new initiative to control vehicle exhaust emissions.

The Ombudsman will investigate whether the Environmental Protection and Transport departments conducted adequate planning and coordination before the implementation of a new initiative to control vehicle exhaust emissions.

Ombudsman Connie Lau Yin-hing said yesterday complaints received by her office suggest the two departments have been using different emissions standards, calling into question whether their efforts were properly planned and coordinated.

She said the measure to control emissions was introduced in September last year with good intentions, but if it was not properly implemented, then its effectiveness would be compromised, causing much inconvenience and frustration to vehicle owners.

Under the new initiative, the EPD deployed remote sensing equipment at various locations throughout the territory to monitor the levels of nitrogen oxides and other vehicle exhaust emitted.

Motorists found to have excessive exhaust emissions receive notices to arrange within 12 working days for their vehicles to undergo an emissions test with a chassis dynamometer (commonly called a “treadmill”) at Designated Vehicle Emission Testing Centres.

Failure to pass the test may lead to cancellation of the vehicle licenses.

However, the Office of the Ombudsman received complaints from vehicle owners alleging that shortly after their vehicles had passed the annual examination required by the Transport Department, they were notified by the EPD that their vehicles had to undergo a treadmill test.

A preliminary inquiry by the Ombudsman has revealed the emissions standards adopted in the idling emissions test of the annual vehicle examination does not include nitrogen oxide emissions.

Moreover, the 22 Designated Car Testing Centres carrying out the annual examination required by the Transport Department are not equipped with “treadmills” for checking nitrogen oxide emissions.

In other words, vehicles that pass the annual examination do not necessarily meet the exhaust emission standards of the treadmill test. Furthermore, there are currently only four emission testing centers authorized to conduct the treadmill test. Whether they can cope with the demand is highly questionable.

Besides, it is noted operators of designated car test centers have indicated they will face various problems such as manpower, facilities, space, and noise nuisance if they have to install treadmills.