Why does Hong Kong International Airport have two air traffic control towers?

Every major airport in the world has an air traffic control tower to handle the safe arrival and departure of aircraft, but Hong Kong International Airport is a little different – it has two of them. But why?

Pair of air traffic control towers in the centre of the airport

The towers

They’re located right next to each other, past the end of the terminal, and midway between the two runways.

Looking down at the pair of air traffic control towers at Hong Kong International Airport

The first one is tall, and is a light green colour.

China Eastern Airlines Airbus A321-231(WL) B-8165 is pushed back by a tug

While the other one a little shorter, with dark grey glass.

HK Express Airbus A320-232 B-LCC taxis to the gate

But why two?

Hong Kong’s Civil Aviation Department has the answer:

To cater for unforeseen circumstances such as fire or other hazards which require the evacuation of the Air Traffic Control Centre and Aerodrome Tower, a backup Air Traffic Control Centre and Aerodrome Tower, which could handle a percentage of the normal traffic, was built and has since been maintained in a state of readiness at all times.

The operations are independent to the main facilities such that failure of the equipment in one will not affect those in the other. It is located within walking distance from the main tower such that the time for switch over is minimal.

The backup facility is not an international requirement and that is why only a few airports have twin control towers. In fact, HKIA is the only airport in the Asia-Pacific region that has a Backup Air Traffic Control Complex. This backup facility is also used for controller training and equipment development purposes.

The backup air traffic control tower was not part of the initial build of the new airport at Chek Lap Kok.

After the new airport opened on July 6, 1998, the ex-Kai Tak Air Traffic Control Centre was retained as a contingency backup to the new Air Traffic Control Centre until April 29, 1999.  

The Approach Surveillance Radar at Beacon Hill, a short range primary radar serving as a backup for the new airport, was decommissioned on March 1, 2000 after 28 years of service.

But followed a year later.

The Backup Air Traffic Control Complex houses the Backup Air Traffic Control Centre, the Backup Aerodrome Control Tower and the Backup Communications Centre. The building, located to the north of the existing Air Traffic Control Complex, was constructed and handed over to Civil Aviation Department for equipment installation on August 9, 1999.

Following testing of each of the individual system, the overall system integration was then performed, including external information fed from the backup meteorological facilities. The total system was successfully completed in December 1999.

The Backup Centres and Tower were being used for air traffic control procedure evaluation and training of air traffic controllers. A full scale drill was scheduled for April 2000 to ensure the functions would be fully tested and the backup facilities in place for contingency use in case of fire or serious mishaps affecting the main ATC facilities.

In addition to serving as a backup to the main tower, it was also used in recent years to assist in the commissioning of a new air traffic control system.

The existing Air Traffic Control (ATC) System has been providing reliable and nonstop services since the commissioning of the Hong Kong International Airport (HKIA) in July 1998. To continuously foster a safe, secured and efficient aviation system in Hong Kong, a replacement programme has commenced since year 2007 to replace the aging ATC System.

The existing ATC System is being used to support the Main ATC Centre (called W-ATCC) and Control Tower (called S-TWR) operations, whereas the Backup ATCC and Backup Control Tower (called N-TWR) is supported by an independent backup ATC System. Due to the accommodation constraints in W-ATCC and S-TWR, it is not feasible for in-situ replacement of the existing equipment. A new ATC Centre, known as East ATC Centre (E-ATCC), was subsequently constructed to accommodate the new ATC System and associated controller working positions to ensure no interruption to the existing H24 ATC operations.

The Phased Functional Implementation of the new ATC System would be completed by October/November 2016. The existing ATC System will then serve as a back-up before its decommissioning.

Footnote: and a third ATC tower

With work on a third runway underway at Hong Kong International Airport, a third air traffic control tower is currently being constructed. Attached to the new northern terminal building, the new tower will be used to direct aircraft using the new north runway.

New air traffic control tower taking shape at Hong Kong International Airport as part of the three-runway system (3RS) project

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Hong Kong road signs and MTR signboards for your fridge

I’ve covered the big range of MTR branded souvenirs for sale before, along with models of Hong Kong buses, but on my last trip to Hong Kong I found something new – road signs.

Selection of Hong Kong road signs themed fridge magnets from a souvenir shop

I found them at the ‘Elegant Tang Dynasty’ gift shop located at the exit from the Peak Tram station at Victoria Peak.

'Elegant Tang Dynasty' gift shop at the Peak Tower in Hong Kong

And as well as road signs, they had a multi-coloured selection of MTR station sign magnets.

Selection of Hong Kong MTR station sign themed fridge magnets from a souvenir shop

So I spent up big – the small magnets being priced at seven for HK$100, with the larger road sign costing a little extra.

I also found a second ‘Elegant Tang Dynasty’ store on Peking Road in Tsim Sha Tsui, just off Nathan Road opposite the iSquare shopping centre.

Note the quality of these magnets is excellent – each one being a piece of transparent acrylic, with the design printed in high resolution underneath, and with the magnet behind.

And more fridge magnets

About a decade ago I picked up these Hong Kong road sign magnets – unfortunately the quality of the printing is much lower, and the edges start turning ratty as soon as you remove them from the plastic packaging.

Selection of Hong Kong road sign themed fridge magnets from a souvenir stall at the Temple Street night market

Back then they could be found all over the Temple Street night markets.

Get your souvenirs here!

But they seem to have been discontinued, replaced by trashier looking magnets with glitter on the front – not to my liking.

Further reading

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The many colours of the Hong Kong MTR

As you travel across the Hong Kong MTR, you’ll find stations of all colours.

Red.

Quiet platform at Central station

Blue.

Station sign at Admiralty

Pink.

Pink school uniforms, pink mosaic tiles

Yellow.

Station name at Yau Tong

Green.

Crosspassage between the narrow platforms at the west end of Lok Fu station

Grey.

Station name at Tsim Sha Tsui

Brown.

A mix of mosaic tiles and fibreglass panels at Sheung Wan MTR station

Purple.

Station name at Shau Kei Wan

And rainbow.

Choi Hung station sign

The reason? The South China Morning Post talked to the MTR Corporation’s chief architect to find out.

The main reason bright colours were adopted when the first line opened in the 1970s was to lighten up the subway system, according to Andrew Mead, the MTR Corporation’s chief architect. With no windows or natural light, underground platforms can be gloomy. Bright colours are associated with beauty, and they bring a dash of that to the mostly subterranean stations, he says.

The corporation could have chosen a neutral white design. But Mead says an important factor in picking different colours was function. Underground, where there are no landmarks to look out for like when you’re travelling by bus or car, colour helped differentiate the MTR stations, and gave each their own identity. That was important, Mead says, because “back in the 1970s, there was still a high level of illiteracy” in the city. It was not until 1971 that Hong Kong launched a programme of free compulsory education.

“If you can’t read, either English or Chinese, how would you recognise a station?” The palette was therefore deliberately planned to help commuters navigate the network.

With thought put into which colour should be used at each station.

For key stations, Mead says, different shades of red were used. The bold red in the Tsuen Wan, Mong Kok and Central stations was intended to alert passengers that they had arrived at an interchange or terminus.

In developing the colour coding, Mead says, the MTR Corp was careful to avoid using the same tone for successive stations. For instance, blue is the hue at Mei Foo, in sharp contrast to the red stations of Lai King and Lai Chi Kok.

However, it takes some lateral thinking to make sense of the colour used at a few of the platforms. Some were simply derived from the Chinese names of the stops. For example, the rainbow colours of Choi Hung station are a vivid example of the literal translation from Cantonese: choi hung means rainbow. Yellow is the colour of Wong Tai Sin station because the word wong means yellow. Lai Chi Kok station is a pinky red because lai chi means lychee. Prince Edward station is purple because it’s commonly associated with royalty in Britain, the city’s former colonial ruler.

Other stations were designed using colours that take into account the local environment.

“Whampoa station is blue because it’s close to the water. Ho Man Tin station is green because it’s a part of the hill, and that’s really how that colour was chosen. Nothing’s really more sophisticated than that, and this makes it distinctive,” Mead says.

Or the lack of colour.

The MTR Corp broke with tradition, however, in the design of stations along the Airport Express, which are a more subdued grey. That’s because the company regards it as an extension of the airport, Mead explains. Norman Foster, the British architect who designed the airport – and the HSBC Building in Central – is not known for his use of colour. In fact, in the industry, Mead says, architects often refer to “Foster grey” because it’s his preferred shade for most of his projects.

So MTR architects decided to capitalise on this distinct colouring – or lack of it. “The Airport Express, Kowloon and Hong Kong stations are all the same grey,” Mead says. “As soon as you go to
Kowloon station, as soon as you go to Hong Kong station, you feel like you are at the airport. It’s the extension of the airport from Lantau into the city.”

You can see the array of colours in this mosaic from 2015 – it features 87 stations, predating the 11 stations since added by the Kwun Tong line extension, South Island line, Tuen Ma line and the East Rail line extension projects.


MTR graphic via SCMP

While this photo collage by Jen Ng covers the 95 stations open as of 2021.

Further reading

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A 2024 update for Hong Kong transport

It has been five years since my last visit to Hong Kong, and in that time there has been a number of changes to local transport.

Upgraded Peak Tram emerges from the haze at Victoria Peak

Trains

The Sha Tin to Central Link project is finally complete, with new Hyundai Rotem EMUs running on an extended East Rail line under Victoria Harbour to Admiralty.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/legoblock/53603655755/

And the Ma On Shan and West Rail lines have been merged into the Tuen Ma line, with new CRRC Changchun EMUs running on the line along with existing SP1900 sets.

CRRC Changchun EMU arrives into Tin Shui Wai station on the Tuen Ma line

CKD0A diesel-electric locomotives have taken over on East Rail line works trains.

MTR Hyundai Rotem EMU passes MTR MTR CKD0A diesel-electric locomotive 9004 and classmate with a rail grinder at Ho Tung Lau depot

With retired MTR diesel-electric locomotives #62, #58 and #61 stored in the freight yard at Sha Tin.

Retired MTR diesel-electric locomotives #62, #58 and #61 stored in the freight yard at Sha Tin

But retired classmate #60 is now on display at the Hong Kong Railway Museum.

Retired MTR EMD diesel-electric locomotive #60 now on display at the Hong Kong Railway Museum

Two carriages from a retired Metro Cammell EMU have also been placed on display at the ‘Water Sports and Recreation Precinct’ on the Wan Chai Harbourfront.

Two carriages from MTR Metro Cammell EMU set E96 on display at the 'Water Sports and Recreation Precinct' on the Wan Chai Harbourfront

However the MTR Intercity Through Train service has been withdrawn – the KTT set stored at Fo Tan Depot.

MTR Hyundai Rotem EMUs stabled beside the stored KTT set at Fo Tan Depot

The Through Train terminal at Hung Hom station mothballed.

Mothballed Through Train customer service counter at Hung Hom station

Trams

New ‘Phase 5’ LRVs have entered service on the MTR Light Rail.

MTR Phase 5 LRV 1136 and 1135 on route 705 beside Tin Yiu Road, Tin Shui Wai

The upgrade of the Peak Tram has been finished.

Upgraded Peak Tram arrives into the lower station

And over the other side of the Pearl River Delta, the Macau Light Rapid Transit is now running.

Passing Ocean Cruiser train 021A headed westbound at Cotai East station on the Macau LRT

On the water

Ferry services to Macau have taken a hit following the opening of the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macao Bridge.

TurboJet catamaran arrives at the Taipa Ferry Terminal, Hong Kong–Zhuhai–Macau Bridge behind

And there is a new livery on the water of Victoria Harbour – Sun Ferry, the new name of New World First Ferry.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/legoblock/53603655815/

Buses

Citybus was merged with New World First Bus, with a quick patch job applied to the acquired NWFB buses until the new Citybus livery can be applied.

Citybus #5658 TS7295 on route 970 along Nathan Road in a patched New World First Bus livery

Kowloon Motor Bus has a growing number of electric buses in their fleet, wearing a bright green livery.

KMB electric bus XY3143 on route 5A at the Star Ferry terminal

And older Long Win buses once used on airport services have been rebranded for KMB for use on urban routes.

Long Win Bus TS4230 rebranded for use with KMB heads along Waterloo Road, Kadoorie Hill

Aviation

The new Sky Bridge to the North Satellite Concourse is open.

Sky Bridge at Hong Kong International Airport, with planes down below

While work on the larger three-runway system (3RS) project at Hong Kong International Airport continues – the new northern runway in use, with work on a new air traffic control tower and terminal building continuing.

New air traffic control tower taking shape at Hong Kong International Airport as part of the three-runway system (3RS) project

And over at the former Kai Tak Airport, the checkerboard pattern on the hill above Kowloon City got a repaint after twenty years.

Night time view from the top of Checkerboard Hill in Kowloon Tong

And some non-transport things

The closed town of Sha Tau Kok is now open to tourists who apply for a travel permit.

Border checkpoint on the Hong Kong side of Chung Ying Street in Sha Tau Kok, which forms the border with Mainland China

With a replica KCR narrow gauge steam locomotive on display at the Chung Ying Street Garden, beside the border with Mainland China.

Replica KCR narrow gauge steam locomotive on display at Chung Ying Street Garden in Sha Tau Kok

Sleeping Beauty Castle at Hong Kong Disneyland was extended to become the ‘Castle of Magical Dreams‘.

'Castle of Magical Dreams' at Hong Kong Disneyland

And in sad news, the Yee Shun Milk Company has closed down their outlets in Mongkok, Yau Ma Tei, and Jordan – leaving just one on Lockhart Road, Causeway Bay.

Last remaining Yee Shun Milk Company outlet, on Lockhart Road, Causeway Bay

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Back from yet another Hong Kong visit

February 2024 saw me finally return to Hong Kong, and this time with two young kids in tow! As with my previous visits, it’s been a mix of a few places I’ve been to before but wanted to share with kids, some new places we’d never ever been to, as well as my usual side trips to see trains – including railway lines that didn’t exist on our last visit.

Day 1: arrival and airport bus to Kowloon.

Driving south down Nathan Road in Ya Ma Tei onboard a KMB bus

Day 2: Tsim Sha Tsui, Wong Tai Sin and Kowloon City, and a late night exploration of the MTR East Rail to Sha Tin Racecourse.

Looking over Junction Road to the Stone Houses Family Garden museum in Kowloon City

Day 3: Bus through New Territories to the closed town of Sha Tau Kok, and home via the Hong Kong Railway Museum.

Border checkpoint on the Hong Kong side of Chung Ying Street in Sha Tau Kok, which forms the border with Mainland China

Day 4: Star Ferry, Hong Kong Island trams, Hong Kong Park, and a fog covered Victoria Peak.

Upgraded Peak Tram emerges from the haze at Victoria Peak

Day 5: Monkeys in the Kowloon Hills, and shopping in Kwun Tong and Mong Kok.

Rabbit warren of collectables, anime, Lego and trading card stalls inside the 'In's Point' shopping mall in Ya Ma Tei

Day 6: Hong Kong Dolphin Watch tour off Tung Chung, AIA Carnival, then a night exploring Wan Chai and Hung Hom.

China Coast Guard ship patrolling off the south-western shore of Lantau Island

Day 7: Tung Chung and the Big Buddha, then a night exploring Causeway Bay, Fo Tan and Mong Kok.

Wild cow on Lantau Island at Ngong Ping

Day 8: Hong Kong–Zhuhai–Macau Bridge to Macau, and riding the Macau LRT.

Passing Ocean Cruiser train 021A headed westbound at Cotai East station on the Macau LRT

Day 9: MTR Tuen Ma line and Tin Shui Wai Mun light rail, then a late night exploration of Tsim Sha Tsui, Victoria Harbour, Kowloon City, Checkerboard Hill.

MTR Phase 5 LRV 1136 and 1135 on route 705 beside Tin Yiu Road, Tin Shui Wai

Day 10: Hong Kong Disneyland, exploring Hong Kong Airport and Chek Lap Kok.

'Castle of Magical Dreams' at Hong Kong Disneyland

Day 11: departure.

Sky Bridge at Hong Kong International Airport, with planes down below

Fingers crossed it won’t be another five years before I’m back in Hong Kong!

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