Published on : Tuesday, April 5, 2016
They are part of an essential team that ensures Hong Kong International Airport runs smoothly as it handles an average of 1,100 flights a day making it one of the world’s busiest airports.
The airport never sleeps. When one of the runways is shut down for the night, the runway maintenance team springs into action.
Airport Authority Airfield Duty Manager Eric Cheung explained that every time a plane lands it reduces the grip needed for safe landings, so to prevent this happening, a cleaning system is used to strip an area where heavy rubber has built up.
It does this by blasting strong jets of water into the tiny grooves of the runway.
“The aircraft is landing at high speed and friction between the tyres and the runway leaves rubber on the tarmac. If the rubber accumulates it becomes slippery for landing, especially on humid and rainy days,” Mr Cheung said.
The team focuses its efforts on the touchdown zone at both ends of the South and North runways. Cleaning is carried out in phases and during the small window of time they have each night they must clean 1,600 square metres.
Airfield Assistant Lai Kwan has worked at the Airport Authority for 16 years and is responsible for operating the runway rubber removal machine. He said it produces 30,000 pounds of hydraulic pressure to break down the rubber into powder which is then absorbed by the machine.
The runway maintenance team starts work at 1.30am and only has four-and-a-half hours before the planes are back on the runway.
Mr Cheung said the team is constantly working against the clock.
“The schedule is tight. As the number of flights is increasing, the time we have for runway maintenance has shortened. Every time we go out onto the runway, we need to finish the work as soon as possible.”
Runway maintenance not only involves removing tyre rubber. They must also keep an eye out for anything that could potentially delay a flight such as debris on the runway, as well as repaint markings on the runways, taxiways, and aprons. Debris clean-up is critically important, so it is carried out throughout the day.
Once they are given the all-clear from air traffic control, the team drives onto the runway during the small time slot between planes taking off and landing to clear up objects like metal screws, plastic bags and stones.
“The control tower tells you where to go, where to exit and how much time you have left to finish the job. If a plane is preparing for take-off and you don’t heed instructions it could lead to serious consequences. There is zero room for error,” Mr Lai explained.
The debris clean-up is only carried out by experienced staff who are familiar with airport operations. New recruits usually start with repainting the ground markings, although there are plans to increase staff training and upgrade equipment to enhance efficiency.
Airport nerve centre
As travellers make their way through the airport, they are probably unaware of the essential work that goes on behind the scenes to ensure they get to their destinations safely and smoothly.
Herman Chung is part of a team of thousands of staff who make that happen. He is in charge of the Integrated Airport Centre.
“Everywhere on airport island including the airfield, terminals, SkyPier and all the roads are under my jurisdiction. It is a team effort.”
Five Airport Duty Managers work in shifts and if there is an urgent situation they will activate the Airport Emergency Centre which is located inside the Integrated Airport Centre.
Airport Authority, Police, Immigration Department, Information Services Department and airline staff will be called for meetings at the centre to discuss emergency contingency plans.
During his 10 years with the Airport Authority, Mr Chung has had to deal with a lot of incidents, but his most memorable experience was in 2014 when a plane hit strong turbulence leaving at least a dozen passengers and crew injured.
“I needed to find out if I could clear the aircraft for priority landing, then I spoke to the Airfield Department about a parking bay. I had to consider where to station the emergency vehicles on standby and the arrangements for passengers who needed to be taken to hospital, including how to handle their luggage. Should we collect the suitcases then deliver them to the airline? All these matters needed careful co-ordination.”
Mr Chung added that after working in different departments over the years he finds his job at the Integrated Airport Centre the most rewarding and challenging.
“My work could have a great impact on passengers. If I am able to respond to an emergency efficiently and the passengers are taken great care of, then I am satisfied.”
Airfield Assistant Mr Lai revealed his sole mission at work.
“A safe take-off and landing for every flight is all I hope for, as it is a direct result of our work to keep the runway safe. That in itself is gratifying.”