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‘Investigate air traffic system failure’

 | September 21, 2012

PKR wants probe on the cause of the total system failure at the Air Traffic Control Centre last week. DCA, however, claims it was not a total failure.

FULL REPORT

SUBANG: Aircraft in the local airspace were “flying blind” last week when the Kuala Lumpur Air Traffic Control Centre (ATCC) suffered a “total failure in the system with no radar, no radio” for almost one-hour-plus, alleged PKR today.

The incident occurred between 2.50am and 4.15am on Sept 12, according to a systems log of the Subang Air Traffic Control Centre and a preliminary report of the incident was revealed to the press by PKR vice-presidents Nurul Izzah Anwar, Tian Chua and N Surendran today.

“A total system failure occurred for almost two hours and throughout that time, the Malaysian airspace was rendered blind, with all departures cancelled and existing air traffic handed over to neighbouring countries,” said Nurul outside the Department of Civil Aviation (DCA) traffic control centre at the Subang airport.

She said the system failure had put civilian passengers on board the planes at risk as they were cut off from any guidance from ground control, and during the down time Singapore and Thailand were in total control of the traffic system, which “left us completely defenceless”.

Retired Royal Malaysian Air Force director-general of operations, brigadier-general Abdul Hadi Abdul Khatab who joined PKR last year, said that what occurred must be taken seriously as there were “high risks” when the airspace is blind, which can even lead to possible air collisions.

Abdul Hadi, a former pilot and RMAF officer for 45 years, urged the government, the Ministry of Transport (MOT) and the DCA to immediately take action and investigate the cause of the breakdown.

“We must not allow something like that to happen again. Risking the lives of airline passengers, that is the most crucial aspect to this. As a former pilot, I know that this kind of system is troubling for air crew handling the aircraft,” he said.

He said it was a dangerous when the radar was down and blind, as “nobody is in control of the movements of planes”.

“They cannot give instructions, they do not know the positions of aircraft, there is a possibility that the planes are not flying the right height they are supposed to fly,” he said.

Independent audit needed

Abdul Hadi criticised the report by local contractor Advanced Air Traffic Systems Sdn Bhd (AAT) as being too simplistic, as it has cited “power failure” as the cause of the breakdown.

“Are they telling us that their technicians are not competent enough to bring the system back-up in one hour? Are they saying they do not do daily checks? Something is wrong with the way they handled the situation,” he said, adding that in his years of experience, he has not encountered such a failure.

Meanwhile, Nurul asked why there has been no transparency from the government despite her repeated attempts to highlight the flaws of the radar system maintained by AAT.

“This flawed system that is in operation now cost Malaysian taxpayers 26.05 million euros (RM128.4 million),” she said. “We need an independent audit on what happened on Sept 12, anything less is unacceptable. I really hope that the DCA and MOT take this seriously… if they were really capable, then such instances would not occur.

Nurul also asked:

  • How could the MOT and DCA accept and operate a flawed system without sufficient back-ups?
  • How could the batteries, uninterrupted power supply, generator set or any other form of backup power supply not be working at the time?
  • What will the MOT and DCA do to ensure such calamities do not reoccur in the future?

“Unless this system failure is investigated and explained by an independent third party, there will be serious concerns that the impending hundreds of millions more to be spent on the air traffic control tower for the RM3.8 billion KLIA 2 project will suffer similar catastrophic failures and put lives at risk.”

The government should call for an independent audit of the air traffic control system in Subang by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), she said.

Nurul said that the MOT and DCA are currently the evaluation consultants for the Airspace Restructuring Project (ATMOP), at KLIA 2, in which AAT is also a bidder. She added that she hoped that the most technically qualified bidder will be chosen.

DCA DG: Not as serious as portrayed by PKR

Meanwhile, DCA director-general Azharuddin Abdul Rahman confirmed that there was a down time in the radar system last week, but implied that it was not as serious as PKR had painted it out to be.

He said that while there was a power supply interruption to the radar system, the radio however still worked, and it was not a “total failure”.

“Investigations found that there was a circuit breaker trip of incoming power supply, and the backup or UPS (uninterrupted power supply) took over but it went unnoticed and it drained out the battery,” he said.

When asked why the system log had noted that both radar and radio were out, he explained that it was merely the “initial assessment” by the supervisor.

“However, when that happened, we initiated our standard trouble shooting procedures and with the aid of radio service, we managed to bring one aircraft to land safely on arrival, without delay at 3.20am.”

Aside from the delay of two aircraft, Azharuddin said that there were no other mishaps or aircraft delays during the hour-plus shortage.

“When the circuit breaker was reset, everything came back [to normal]. We did not have to use the contingency plan to transfer our aircraft movement to other states, as what Nurul claimed,” he said.

Asked how DCA would ensure that such an incident does not recur, Azharuddin said that the department is looking at improving the remote control monitoring system and also looking at a possible upgrade.

On whether an additional investigation will be carried out, Azharuddin said it was unlikely. “We know what went wrong that day. I don’t think any more investigation will be required. Now we have to talk to all concerned to be more vigilant in cases like this.”


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