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Regulator is holding Chek Lap Kok back

Albert Cheng says air traffic control is not being fully utilised to increase capacity

South China Morning Post – Oct. 19, 2011

Last weekend, in his response to my recent column on aviation safety, the Civil Aviation Department’s assistant director general for air traffic management, Wong Ping-fai, said Hong Kong did not lack air traffic controllers. He pointed out that controllers worked an average of 36.17 hours per week and had 36 days of annual leave, which means there is no fatigue problem or overworked staff.

According to Wong, the department has 154 frontline air traffic controllers, up from 148 last year. Over the last five years, he said, there had been a 25 per cent increase in the total number of air traffic controllers.

But the number of annual flight movements has been on a rapid rise over the past four years: from 296,000 in 2007 to 310,000 last year. This year the figure is expected to reach 320,000. The volume of flight movements will therefore expand by 24,000 just over the past five years.

The current air traffic handling capacity at the Hong Kong International Airport is 62 flight movements per hour, which pales by comparison with others in neighbouring regions. Baiyun Airport in Guangzhou now handles 60 flight movements per hour, but a third runway under construction will boost capacity to 106 flights per hour when it is completed before the end of this year.

Beijing International Airport’s capacity is 68 flights per hour and London Heathrow’s is 85. It is unacceptable that Hong Kong,  as a regional aviation hub, can handle only 62 flight movements per hour.

The Civil Aviation Department has hurt our reputation by not optimising the capacity and resources of the airport. Yet department officials now propose to build a third runway, which will cost taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars. What a waste of money! We could have reached a higher handling capacity if the department could better utilise resources.

The old Kai Tak airport, right in the midst of residential buildings and with only one runway, could handle 35 flight movements per hour. Now, Chek Lap Kok with two runways and a far less challenging location for pilots to land can’t even double the Kai Tak capacity. How ridiculous it makes us look.

The problem is that we are operating with the format of “one in, one out”. Incoming aircraft land on the northern runway while outgoing flights take off from the southern runway instead of utilising both runways for take-off and landing. It defies logic why we can’t allow both runways to operate independently.

It’s obvious that the stumbling block is the Civil Aviation Department’s refusal to move with the times. They appear to be reluctant to upgrade existing equipment to optimise the capacity of existing runways to allow landings and take-offs to take place on both runways.

The key to making this work is whether we can maintain the safety margin as well as efficiency when allowing incoming and outgoing flights to take place on both runways at the same time.

It’s true that the surrounding landscape at the airport does make it slightly difficult to come up with an ideal set of approach and departure procedures as well as missed approach procedures. But it’s not impossible.

The Civil Aviation Department is well equipped to handle the situation. In 2000, it bought a multimillion-dollar air traffic control radar – the Precision Runway Monitor, which provides the most up-to-date, real-time data to air traffic controllers to prevent any aircraft deviating from its intended flight path and give out timely warnings in advance.

The PRM could be put to better use to help raise our airport capacity. The department can’t keep on shirking its responsibility by putting the blame on outside factors such as the congested airspace in the Pearl River Delta region.

We need to seriously consider the option and allow both runways to operate at maximum capacity. At the same time, we must recruit more air traffic controllers to handle future flight movement increases. It’s time to welcome foreign talent.

Albert Cheng King-hon is a political commentator.

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