Technical failures delay Jeju flights

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Technical failures delay Jeju flights

Seventy-seven flights were delayed on Saturday at Jeju International Airport after communication equipment from its air traffic control towers jammed for over an hour and backup devices failed to be utilized in time.

According to the Korea Airports Corporation (KAC) and Jeju Regional Office of Aviation on Sunday, Jeju International Airport had technical difficulties coordinating flights from 6:50 p.m. to 8:06 p.m. due to a breakdown in communication channels.

Four of the airport’s control towers and six of its area control centers were reported to have experienced communication problems. The control tower coordinates departures and arrivals for all flights within a 5-mile radius, while area control centers manage airplanes moving in Jeju’s air space.

The air traffic control towers reportedly stopped transmitting and receiving frequencies at around 7:40 p.m. Until the relevant cables were replaced, the airport had to resort to coordinating flights with flashlights.

The incident resulted in the delay of 77 flights. According to the airport, 37 flights were delayed from their original flight schedule, while 40 flights were forced to delay their arrival due to the breakdown.

Compounding the issue was that the airport’s secondary and emergency communication devices - used when the main system is broken - were not put in use for nearly an hour. The emergency communication equipment went online at 7:41 p.m., about 50 minutes after the communication breakdown occurred, and the airport was only able to control a limited number of flights.

“This was first time that the communication devices have broken down since Jeju International Airport was opened,” said an official from the Jeju Regional Office of Aviation, who asked not to be named.

Although the exact cause behind the incident is still under investigation, the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport said on Sunday that human error could have resulted in the belated operation of the secondary and emergency communication devices.

Jeju International Airport staff on the control towers are from the Jeju Regional Office of Aviation, though the communication devices are managed by the KAC’s Jeju regional headquarters.

When the controllers discovered the main communication devices were not working, KAC staff members reportedly went down to first floor to operate the secondary communication device.

The secondary device also failed to work, however, which later turned out to be due to the fact that both the main and secondary devices were colliding on the same frequency band.

Staff members were apparently trying to use the secondary and emergency devices while fixing the main system without having shut off the power. According to experts, secondary and emergency devices work only when the main devices are shut down.

“If the primary communication equipment and emergency devices have the same frequency, they will collide with each other, so in this situation, [workers] should have used a device in a different frequency channel,” Kim Heung-soo, a telecommunications engineering professor at Jeju National University, said. “I can’t understand how an airport that should be familiar with telecommunications experienced this kind of accident.”

Jeju International Airport is the main gateway to Jeju, one of the country’s top tourism spots. More than 23.2 million people used the airport last year, and some 400 flights operate there daily.

“Although we believe that the control tower cable was the main problem, we will work with the Transport Ministry to determine the exact cause,” the KAC official said.

The Transport Ministry said on Sunday that it will also examine the situation at other airports to prevent similar occurrences.

BY CHOI CHOONG-IL, JOO KYUNG-DON [joo.kyungdon@joongang.co.kr]

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