Hong Kong airport is one of the busiest in the world and, at peak times, can see an aircraft takeoff or landing simultaneously on different runways. Behind the scenes, monitoring the skies and keeping the whole operation running smoothly, is the Air Traffic Management Division of the Civil Aviation Department Hong Kong (CAD) and their assistant director-general Anthony Tam.
If you ever want advice on how to handle stress, Mr Tam is probably the man to ask. He has a high-pressure job with extensive responsibilities and must be ready to react to changing circumstances on a round-the-clock basis. Weather patterns, busy traffic situations and positional updates require constant vigilance plus careful planning and knowledge of the latest technological upgrades. But even after more than 30 years with the department, Mr Tam enjoys every day and wouldn't swap his job with anyone!
"Joining the CAD as a student air traffic control officer was my first career move and was definitely the right one," he says. What initially attracted him were the overseas training opportunities and the fact that the work seemed exciting. He admits, though, that getting reasonably attractive pay while still an engineering student at the Hong Kong Polytechnic was also a strong motivation.
Like every CAD recruit, Mr Tam began by learning the professional skills of a controller. There were tough examinations along the way and close supervision from his instructors. The overriding aim, then as now, was to maintain the safety of air traffic by providing guidance to every flight and liaising with neighbouring air traffic control units. Those who successfully complete the six-year training period and gain further experience can be promoted to senior management positions within the department and take on the role of instructors and supervisors. Having done all that, Mr Tam is now accountable for a safe and efficient operation in the skies over Hong Kong, as well as being responsible for the deployment of resources and taking care of staff welfare.
We are very strict about the quality of staff and have high expectations
Even though he works a standard nine-to-five schedule, Mr Tam must be reachable 24-hours a day. "Our work is greatly affected by the weather, so I usually start by checking the forecast," he says. "If there is a typhoon in the area, I pay special attention and may need to report for duty around the clock." The daily routine also involves checking logbooks and reports, liaising with supervisors and external authorities, investigating special cases, and overseeing the entire operation.
A lot changed when the airport was relocated from Kai Tak to Chek Lap Kok. Staff had to get familiar with more sophisticated new equipment and manpower was doubled. "Human resource management is challenging because many factors affect the planning," notes Mr Tam. "There is also a bottleneck in training since everything from using the simulator to gaining on-the-job experience requires one-on-one training. This takes time and considerable resources so we can only train 10 to 12 new controllers each year." He emphasises, however, that maintaining safety is always paramount and can never be compromised due to lack of manpower. To ensure controllers receive sufficient rest and are mentally sharp, a 30-minute break is scheduled after every two hours of duties.
Within the current workforce of some 200 controllers, there are 59 overseas employees and 39 student controllers. "Overseas recruitment is one avenue for increasing manpower," says Mr Tam. "However, such recruits know the skills but still need conversion training in local practices and procedures before they can be licensed to work in Hong Kong. Our preference remains to develop local trainees and we are exploring methods to increase training capacity."
The standard six-year training period may scare off some people, but about 1,000 applications are still received during each round of recruitment. Mr Tam says, "We are very strict about the quality of staff and have high expectations." Good English is essential and an annual medical examination must be passed. Training usually takes place in Hong Kong, Australia and the UK. In particular, candidates should be capable of working independently and able to respond quickly to unforeseen events in line with the correct procedures.
"It can be a stressful profession and not everyone stays until retirement age," says Mr Tam, "but if you can handle the pressure, there is a great sense of job satisfaction."
The sky has boundaries and air traffic controllers are responsible for ensuring the safety of aircraft within their zone and trouble-free passage to the next intended area.
As there are differences in traffic patterns, rules and regulations, even the most experienced Hong Kong controller would need extensive retraining to take up a similar position in mainland China.