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Wing and a prayer

Clear the Air says:   and this is before the current building of the midfield Chep Lap Kok airport extension is completed and then the Government CX , HACTL and DHL  want a third runway ………………….?

Hong Kong Standard – 14 Oct. 2011

Wing and a prayer

Phila Siu
Friday, October 14, 2011

Look up and listen and it’s almost certain there’s an aircraft arriving or leaving Hong Kong International Airport. Like its passengers, you will assume – if the thought even occurs – that besides its pilot and crew an aircraft is in the good care of controllers as they track it on screens in their Chek Lap Kok tower.

It’s probably because the fallout from anything less than 100-percent performances in the tower is so horrible to imagine that few people other than air crews actually get to thinking about controller performance. But we should all be wondering and perhaps fretting about what’s going on in the tower now that details of near misses in Hong Kong airspace have come to light.

If disgruntled personnel in Air Traffic Control are close to the mark, a human time bomb has long been ticking in the tower – “the lion’s den,” as some pilots call it – and near-misses brought to light in an investigation by The Standard give new lift to calls for remedial action on controller rostering.

Controllers complain about a lack of staff in the tower and unreasonable working routines that lead to fatigue. Pilots say it’s reflected in declining standards among the people they depend on above most others.

Against them, top managers in the Civil Aviation Department say there are enough well-rested controllers to meet the traffic demands at what ranks as the world’s 10th busiest airport, where passenger traffic reached five million in August and 28,940 planes landed and depa

rted in the month.

On paper, there does seem to be enough controllers to look after all of us who fly. Overall strength at present is around 165 “active” controllers in three sections: tower, approach and area control.

There are also between 40 and 50 seasoned controllers in project groups and evaluation and training units. (Gender, it should be noted, does not count in this job, with women comprising about 40 percent of overall strength.)

But something was lacking on September 18, a day when Hong Kong people’s long and easy acceptance of air travel as a sure way to get around would have been tested to breaking point if technology had not been in the hands of pilots at the top of their game.

For on this day there were two near- miss situations – meaning aircraft came close to collisions – above us. Two Cathay Pacific wide-bodied Boeings and a Dragonair Airbus were involved.

As one controller tells it, it was a day when there was just not enough personnel in the tower. The situation became so bad that a supervisor and a watch manager had to sit in front of screens when they should have been shouldering broader responsibilities on a rainy, windy day.

Making the situation worse, it’s said, was the fact this was a Sunday, meaning a lack of support personnel who on any other day could and should have been alerting senior managers elsewhere in the complex that the people in Air Traffic Control were having trouble living up to the sign on their door.

It was close to 1pm when calm control gave way to something close to chaos, with pilots on approaches or in holding patterns waiting longer than expected for landing instructions. Some reported fuel tanks getting worryingly low as they circled and awaited landing clearances for Hong Kong, others sought to divert.

That was when Cathay Pacific flight CX841 from New York almost crashed with Dragonair KA433 from Kaoshiung, passing each other at a distance of 1,850 meters.

By aviation measures that’s dangerously close when you take account of speed, but a collision was avoided because one aircraft climbed and the other descended thanks to the automatic activation of onboard avoidance systems.

Former Civil Aviation Department chief Albert Lam Kwong-yu estimates they were six seconds from a likely disaster. “The chance of a crash is absolutely high,” he says of the speed and distances between the aircraft. Although they didn’t know it “the passengers really came back from hell.”

More than 600 passengers and crew members were on the two planes.

Yet new danger was roaring in for the people on the Dragonair flight. A few minutes after the near miss with CX841 more avoidance action was required of KA433 to get clear of another Cathay Pacific flight, CX347, arriving from Beijing. This time the distance between aircraft was about 7,000m.

The stress brought on by the first near miss saw the controller concerned having to be relieved by a supervisor. And after the supervisor handled the second near miss she decided that she herself needed to be relieved.

The series of near-misses have sparked an uproar of criticism among controllers and pilots, who have aired their discontent on an aviation forum PPRuNe Forums, throwing even more light on the situation.

In seeking to fend off claims from controllers that fatigue must be taken into account when looking at such incidents, a spokeswoman for the Civil Aviation Department talks of the staffing situation on September 18.

Normally, she says, there are perhaps eight controllers in the tower, but on September 18 there were 13 because of the bad weather.

And the controller involved with the first near-miss, who has worked in Air Traffic Control for over 14 years, was fresh from a day off, so fatigue was unlikely to be a factor.

She also pointed to the department having well-worked contingency plans for emergencies such as the danger of a mid-air collision. They include a controller applying radar-supported disciplines and instructing aircraft to take specific headings away from each other and to change altitudes while still feeding data to the crews concerned.

But a Standard request for a transcript of tower recordings on the events of September 18 was rejected as it would be inappropriate and “also not fair to the involved parties for any part of the evidence or data to be released to a third party during the investigation.”

A controller tells The Standard that the problems of September 18 have been a long time in the making, and like colleagues he claims a shambles in the leave and days-off system in a 10-day cycle is the cause.

Controllers must work more than the required or recommended hours each month, he says, and many cannot enjoy proper annual leave or count on rest days.

And controllers cannot look to a union to fight for their interests, he adds. The last union president seeking a better deal on conditions quit the office after being faced down by seven senior managers.

The on-off roster system can be hard to figure, that’s for sure.

A 10-day roster should include three days off in a system that has three shifts. A controller can expect to work on all shifts over the 10 days, though with many variations.

One particularly sore point, the controller says, is that if someone is granted two days of annual leave during a 10-day cycle they will then be rostered on for two of the normal rest days. “They end up working the same amount of hours that month as everybody else. Bizarre!”

In principle, controllers work the same number of hours as any other civil servant who has a 42-hour week. But controllers are not Monday-to-Friday, daytime-only workers.

Annual leave is another source of strain. Some longer-serving controllers qualify for 40.5 days of annual leave, but low down the scale it’s two weeks.

Then there are some expatriate controllers who would like to save some leave until the end of a contract but are forced to take it all annually, while young local staff might apply for leave but have to wait until what’s owed is close to the legal limit.

Extreme case

Many controllers are said to have accumulated the legal maximum of six months of untaken leave and up to 400 hours for days worked when they should have been resting. One was actually owed more than 10 months off in leave, though that’s an extreme case.

“Any aviation specialist will agree that it is vital for pilots and controllers to have a long break of two to three weeks away from work at least once a year – preferably twice,” the controller says.

But the CAD spokeswoman says claims that controllers face problems about taking time off are “incorrect.”

In the last five years, she says, 85 percent of long-leave applications – that is, more than 14 days – have been approved.

In addition, 3,543 leave days were approved to 155 operational control staff in the first seven months of this year. On average, a controller had 22.8 leave days during the seven months. The controller who provided much of the inside story on the Chek Lap Kok tower claims that managers play with numbers to come up with this satisfactory-looking picture.

He also says the fact that some colleagues lack skills should be put down to many experienced controllers leaving “because of dissatisfaction with management, only half the salary of what they can earn overseas and the generally poor working conditions and atmosphere in Air Traffic Control.”

Frozen salaries

On pay, he claims that salaries have effectively been frozen since 1997 – a year before the opening of the airport at Chek Lap Kok. A student air traffic control officer starts on HK$16,855 a month while a senior operations officer makes between HK$82,975 and HK$95,595.

Pilots, meanwhile, continue to make their feelings known about what comes out of the tower, or what doesn’t.

One said that many pilots are becoming increasingly frustrated because some controllers appear to lack an understanding of how air traffic works.

There can be an uncomfortably long wait for instructions, he added, though he accepted that could also be due to controllers being overworked in an understaffed tower rather than a lack of skills.

There is also concern about the Civil Aviation Department trying to keep some matters under wraps – such as not offering information about the September 18 incidents until after The Standard pushed for it. (Top officials in the CAD had said previously that people should be kept in the dark about most aviation-linked incidents as it would be “inappropriate” to go public with much information about mishaps.)

There were about 500 incidents carrying classifications from “minor” to “serious” from January 2009 to April this year. Details of about 29 were made public.

And while we have yet to hear of all the lessons that may have been taken to heart after September 18, there has been one change in manpower in the tower after that frightening day.

A “contingency roster” – a boost in manpower – can now be brought into play in response to bad weather or other testing scenarios.

“It sounds very good, but the problem is that the controllers they are making available are from management,” says the tower insider. “They are not up to speed and could cause more problems.”

Roger, over and out. For now.

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