Remote air traffic control towers could improve aviation safety and the productivity of air traffic controllers, lower construction and maintenance costs, and help airports in small communities, according to a new report published by think tank Reason Foundation.
The study’s author, Stephen Van Beek, a former associate deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation during the Clinton administration and a former member of the FAA’s Management Advisory Council, examines how remote towers are being implemented in Europe and how those lessons can be applied in the U.S. to help air traffic controllers and airports, especially in smaller communities.“If remote towers were approved for use in this country, they would enable more small airports to qualify for a contract towers,” writes Robert Poole, director of transportation at Reason Foundation.
Remote towers use high-definition cameras and sensors to provide air traffic controllers with 360° views of airspace and runways.
According to officials with the Reason Foundation, key points in the study, include:
- “Importantly, proponents of remote towers do not intend to replace staffed towers, but rather to increase the geographic and time-of-day coverage where air traffic control is not currently provided.”
- “For airports unable to afford a traditional or contract tower, remote towers potentially offer a less expensive alternative…For non-towered airports, adding new surveillance technologies can streamline access, reduce delays, increase safety margins, and create ‘order out of chaos.'”
- “For all airports, better imagery (especially important at night and in rain, snow, or fog) would enable increases in security and safety, since unauthorized surface movements or wildlife on an airfield could be more readily identified.”
- “On the capital side, remote towers offer significant savings, especially if multiple airports are connected to a remote tower center. Estimated capital costs for a single-station remote tower facility are between $1.5 million and $2.5 million, less than the recent capital costs of federal contract towers, which range between an estimated $3 million to $7 million.”
- “The remote tower concept decreases the up-front cost and lengthy construction schedule of building a tall physical structure, while also reducing environmental and air navigation impacts. It may also reduce annual operating and maintenance costs, especially in cases where one remote tower center serves several small airports. That means when the benefit/cost [B/C] ratio for a new contract tower is calculated, the benefits likely equal (or exceed) a conventional (physical) tower’s, and the costs are lower, thereby producing a higher B/C ratio.”
- “Remote towers also offer the FAA or ATC provider the ability to recruit controllers to more attractive assignments.”
- “Remote towers are rapidly becoming a reality in Europe. On the very large end of the scale, London Heathrow Airport implemented a remote contingency tower in 2009; it provides 70% of normal capacity using a ground surveillance display system, but does not include an “out-the-window” display.
- Sweden became the first to deploy tower services from a remote facility, when in April 2015 the nation’s ATC company, LFV, took over tower service operations at Örnsköldsvik Airport and switched control for them to Sundsvall, over 150 kilometers away. LFV is the ATC corporation responsible for air navigation services at 23 airports in Sweden.”
According to the report, two U.S. pilot projects are underway. One is at the busy general aviation airport of Leesburg, Virginia, and the other at the somewhat larger Northern Colorado Regional Airport in Loveland, 38 miles northwest of Denver. Neither airport currently has a conventional control tower.
The full report, Remote Air Traffic Control Towers: A Better Future for America’s Small Airports, is online.