Hong Kong airport urged to review contingency plans after eight-hour runway closure

The Hong Kong Airport Authority has been urged to review its contingency procedures after hundreds of passengers’ travel plans were thrown into turmoil on Monday amid an eight-hour closure of a runway triggered by a cargo plane bursting a tyre during an emergency landing.

The call by a legislator came as an aviation expert also said the authority should have notified the public and other airlines sooner, but he appreciated the long time taken to resume full operations of the runway given the safety concerns involved.

The north runway at the airport was forced to close shortly after 7am after a cargo plane made the emergency return landing when its hydraulic system failed and it burst a tyre upon landing.

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The runway did not resume normal operations until 3.45pm. Nearly half or 450 of the 932 flights handled at the airport between 7am and midnight were delayed as a result, according to the authority.

Only Hong Kong International Airport’s south runway was operating as a result of the emergency. One runway closed for modification works in 2022 and will reopen this year.

Passengers said their itineraries were severely affected, with some missing their onwards connections.

Legislative Council transport panel chairman Chan Han-pan said the authority should review its contingency plans and procedures.

“It has taken too long to resolve the issue. The authority should have a thorough review of their contingency plan to see if there are other ways to speed up the clearance of the runway,” Chan said.

“I am not suggesting the authority should rush and compromise safety. But with the closure of one runway, not only departing flights are affected, so are arriving flights. Those delays could have had a knock-on effect on other flights. Many passengers with connecting flights could have their itineraries completely ruined.

“It is not yet the peak holiday season and passenger traffic has not returned to pre-Covid level either. Otherwise, we could be in big trouble. The authority should not take it too lightly.”

The cargo plane was stuck on the runway after suffering a hydraulics failure and a burst tyre. Photo: May Tse

But Ng Kam-hung, an assistant professor at the department of aeronautical and aviation engineering of Polytechnic University, said the time taken to resume full operations was not unreasonably long.

“The incident does not reflect a deficiency in airdrome operations, as its primary concern was safety,” Ng said. “First, brake and tyre replacement at the airdrome requires time. Engineers must inspect for potential defects and assess both the aircraft and runway conditions before proceeding with operations such as cargo offloading and tyre replacement.

“Meanwhile, the aircraft encountered additional issues, including a reported problem with the hydraulic system after it landed on the north runway.

“And also for safety reasons, foreign object detection is necessary, as the airport received an FOD report on the south runway. Handling and removing FOD is crucial to aviation safety or else it could lead to severe consequences.”

But Ng agreed the authority could have done better in the handling of information, arguing it should have released more frequent updates about the incident to the public and other airlines.

“This can allow airlines to use their platforms like mobile apps or text messages to notify their passengers sooner before they go to the airport,” he said. “Although this might not speed up the recovery process, it would give passengers a heads-up.

“For example, those heading to mainland China could then consider alternative transport options, such as the high-speed railway. And passengers travelling overseas could revise their flight plans or mentally prepare themselves for delays.”

He added that the practice of sending flight delay notifications via text message was well-developed on the mainland.

The authority said on Monday it had implemented multiple measures to ease passenger arrivals, including increasing baggage handlers and extending the opening hours of customer service counters.

“[The] airport operation remained generally smooth,” a spokesman for the authority said, adding that public transport companies had also stepped up services between the airport and the city

Monday’s eight-hour closure turned out to be the worst in recent years. Last June, a Cathay Pacific Airways flight to Los Angeles aborted take-off at the airport after an overheated tyre was believed to have burst. The aircraft returned to the gate and evacuated passengers, 11 of whom needed hospital treatment.

There were reports that the south runway had to be briefly closed, resulting in delays to some flights for 30 minutes.

In September 2019, a Hong Kong Airlines flight departing to Bali, Indonesia, suffered hydraulic failure after taking off and had to make an emergency return, followed by a stop on the runway due to a burst main tyre.

The runway was then closed for more than an hour until all 280 passengers disembarked, the tyre was replaced and the aircraft towed off the runway.

In April 2012, a runway was also closed for about four hours after an Emirates flight from Bangkok burst a tyre while landing. The aircraft was damaged after landing, and passengers disembarked on the taxiway using mobile stairs.

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