Hong Kong's new airport systems buckle under pressure

Following the pomp of last week's grand opening of Hong Kong's new Chek Lap Kok (CLK) international airport, numerous mishaps related to computer problems turned the airport into chaos, with IT suppliers indicating that systems were pushed to the breaking point when they were finally put into action.

Following the pomp of last week's grand opening of Hong Kong's new Chek Lap Kok (CLK) international airport, numerous mishaps related to computer problems turned the airport into chaos, with IT suppliers indicating that systems were pushed to the breaking point when they were finally put into action.

The run down of last week's problems reportedly linked to faulty IT systems includes: arrivals stranded on the tarmac not receiving parking gate directions; passengers missing flights due to problems with the Flight Information Display System (FIDS); lost and delayed luggage with baggage handling systems crashing; and problems with baggage reconciliation, which meant there was at least one flight where baggage was loaded onto a flight even though the passengers failed to get on the plane.

In addition to the problems with passenger operations, half of the public telephones in the terminal building were out of order and most of the Mass Transit Railway Corp.'s (MTRC) automatic ticket machines were malfunctioning at last week's launch.

The Airport Authority -- which was charged with the airport planning and construction and oversees airport operations -- has been slow to release details regarding the computer problems that marred the CLK facility's opening week, and failed to reply to repeated requests for information by press time.

However, officials from suppliers of two major systems indicated that the biggest problem at CLK was a system overload.

Electronic Data Systems Corp. (EDS) acknowledged that the FIDS system it installed -- which displays flight information in both English and Chinese at the check-in counters, gates and baggage collection area -- experienced some problems, according to Jay Davis, director of marketing and business development at EDS.

“We had set some limits around the (EDS) database that in retrospect were too little,” Davis said, adding that there was more usage on the system than anticipated. Incorrect data input was also to blame for the display monitors' malfunctions, making it difficult for passengers to find their planes, he noted.

Ian Stewart, regional vice president North East Asia for international airline service supplier SITA, agreed that systems were not fully stress-tested until Chek Lap Kok finally opened for operation.

SITA developed the Common Use Terminal Equipment (CUTE) -- a check-in system that enables airlines to access passenger information through a shared network and shared set of terminal equipment, as well as the Common Use Baggage Enterprise System (CUBES) -- which supports baggage sorting and reconciliation functions.

“We assume that it is a volume issue. If you test with 10,000 transactions and hit it with 70,000 transactions there may be some bottlenecks,” SITA's Stewart said, claiming that the systems SITA installed had been working satisfactorily since the move to CLK in the early hours of July 6.

However, Stewart was unavailable for comment regarding an incident where passengers were reportedly left behind while their flight took off with their luggage -- something the baggage reconciliation system should have caught.

The extent of systems integration at Chek Lap Kok could be another cause for IT-related problems, both SITA's Stewart and Davis at EDS said.

“The information that comes through FIDS feeds into other systems and vice versa and so if you have any hiccup anywhere down the line then it impacts the other systems and it will potentially impact airport operations and passenger flow,” Davis said.

FIDS, CUTE, CUBES, the baggage handling system, resource allocation and gate allocation all feed or extract information from the Airport Operational Database (AODB), run by the master systems integrator, Hughes Asia-Pacific, according to Stewart at SITA.

“There's a lot of data passed between applications and I suspect the controlling software, the policeman (or AODB) is probably having digestion problems in processing this quickly enough,” Stewart said, adding that a problem in one system can create a snowball effect with other systems.

In defense of last week's systems failures at CLK, Stewart said, “Any airport the size of CLK when it opens is going to experience problems. I don't care how well you test it, it's impossible to have something as complex as that without having some difficulties.”

FIDS is comprised of an Oracle7 database that runs on two Digital Alpha 4100 servers, 57 load sharing Digital Alpha workstations, 16 data input PCs, 2 graphic input PCs and is displayed on 150 LCD boards.

The CUTE suite includes 591 workstations at CLK and the Hong Kong and Kowloon MTR stations, 86 boarding gate readers, 444 air ticket and boarding pass printers, 319 baggage tag printers and 111 hard copy printers.

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