NEEDED POLICY DECISION: Contract versus Remote Towers

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Airport takes first step for adding tower

SESAR2020 assesses feasibility of multiple remote tower ops at three Lithuanian airport

Remote Air Traffic Control Towers: A Better Future for America’s Small Airports

Recently, two articles were published contemporaneously precipitated the need to discuss, if not decide upon the merits of contract towers as opposed to the emerging technology of remote towers. They were:

·        an article about building a tower at Boulder, NV on the expectation that it would qualify as Federal Contract Tower (FCT for the US supported program and CT for generic)


·        a report of SESAR initiating a study of the feasibility of Remote Towers (RT).

The US Contract Tower Association was formed to allow 3rd party companies to operate ATCTs, which were scheduled for closure due to failure of the air traffic levels to justify the deployment of FAA staff and the technical support. Periodically, some budget wizard decided that the next year’s operating budget should be reduced by cutting the facility. There is a benefit cost analysis that determines what towers should be closed. The FAA and airports offered the CT concept as an effective alternative; a community with an airport but without a FAA staffed ATCT has difficulty attracting new businesses. The economy tends to be national and global in scope, companies regard access to that commerce as an important siting criterion.


The OIG has found that the FCT program provides a good balance among safety, the local economic development considerations and fiscal responsibility. The USCTA has successfully defended against the budget hawks in Congress and the Executive Branch. It is, like most compromises, not a perfect solution.

The Boulder case highlights an issue: does it make sense to BUILD an ATCT for future FTC status? The city will spend about $5 million and its current operations, volume and complexity, place the project among the top 3 candidates.

There is no guarantee that the FTC will continue forever and what then to do with a white elephant ATCT.


Now comes SESAR and its ambitious RT program.  As described by ATM:

Lithuanian air navigation service provider Oro Navigacija (ON), DLR and Frequentis last month performed a validation exercise for multiple 
remote tower to test the concept’s operational feasibility.

The SESAR 2020 project PJ05 ‘Remote Tower for Multiple Airports’ aims to bring the concept of remotely controlled multiple airports to the 
next maturity level.

In the test setting, one air traffic controller provided air traffic services to three Lithuanian airports simultaneously. In a real-time 
simulation at the DLR Air Traffic Validation Centre, six Lithuanian controllers managed extensive traffic in a mixed VFR/IFR environment.

They were provided with a newly developed flight strip planning system from Frequentis AG, a three-fold radar and a three-fold outside 
view, with integrated voice communication system and augmented weather information.

The validation exercise was planned and put into practice by human factors and simulation experts from DLR’s Institute of Flight Guidance. 
In the V2 validation, controllers ran four different scenarios, each lasting 50 minutes, with diverse use cases.

The operating efficiencies of centralized ATC is very attractive and if the SESAR test is validated, RT will demand more consideration as an alternative (less expensive?) to FCT?

The FAA’s first RT assessment is in Leesburg, Virginia (Loveland, CO is the other site). Defense and security company Saab, the Virginia SATSLab, Inc. (VSATS) and the Leesburg Executive Airport are partnering to demonstrate and evaluate Saab remote tower technologies at Leesburg Executive Airport.

This partnership will demonstrate and evaluate the remote tower system for use at non-towered airports. The Federal Aviation Administration and the Virginia Department of Aviation are advisory partners for the project.

For the demonstration, the partnership will deploy a number of Saab technologies at the airport — high definition video cameras, pan-tilt-zoom (PTZ) camera, signal light gun (SLG) and microphones — that will provide data directly to a Remote Tower Center (RTC) also located at the airport. The RTC will have multiple high-definition displays and two controller working positions with command of voice communications, the cameras and SLG. Data will be collected from the RTC, along with data from a Mobile Air Traffic Control Tower (MATCT) that will be deployed at the same time for safety redundancy and data comparison. FAA-certified Control Tower Operators will staff both the RTC and MATCT.

More details are available here.


The next thought to consider is the excellent policy analysis by Stephen Van Beek, entitled  Remote Air Traffic Control Towers: A Better Future for America’s Small Airports. This airport advocate makes the following important observations:


For some smaller airports, “remote towers” offer a possible alternative. The idea is that instead of constructing a tall building with a control cab on top to house the controllers, just erect a pole with an array of sophisticated video cameras and communications gear, and securely communicate all that information to controllers in a ground-level building housing the control room. Instead of the traditional “out-the-window” view, the controllers would have a panoramic video display of the airfield and its environs. That “remote tower center” could be located at the airport in question, or it could be located at a considerable distance. In the case of low-activity airports, it is possible to locate controllers responsible for several small airports in a single remote tower center.

Simulations by the FAA at its Atlantic City research center in 2007 demonstrated that a remote tower can provide better surveillance at night and in rain, fog, or snow conditions, thanks to the infrared and other camera equipment, and other advanced technologies. Experienced controllers and supervisors preferred the remote tower to a conventional tower after using both during the simulations. Hence, a remote tower can improve safety margins and provide operational benefits compared to a conventional tower. Moreover, the construction cost is significantly lower than building a tall, occupied structure. And in some configurations, the operating costs can be lower, especially in cases where several low- activity airports are controlled from a single remote tower center. With the benefits greater than a conventional tower and the costs lower, a B/C ratio greater than 1.0 will be easier to achieve for many small airports.

Unfortunately, the FAA has no current program to develop and implement remote towers, presumably due to its ongoing budget problems and other priorities. By contrast, remote towers are already in operation in a number of European countries:

  • Sweden certified the first remote tower operation in the world in 2016, controlling air traffic at Örnsköldsvik from a remote tower center at Sundsvall, 93 miles away. In 2017, it plans to add control of two more small airports from Sundsvall.
  • Norway is under way in 2017 developing a remote tower center to control traffic at five small airports, with a goal of increasing that to 20 by 2020.
  • Germany will open its first remote tower center in Leipzig in 2017 to control air traffic at Saarbrücken; that center will subsequently also be responsible for Dresden and Erfurt.
  • Ireland in late 2016 completed the first operational trial of controlling two airports— Cork and Shannon—from a remote tower center at Dublin Airport.
  • NATS, the air traffic control company for the United Kingdom, will replace the current tower at London City Airport with a remote tower. Air traffic for the four-million-passenger airport will then be controlled at Swanwick, about 80 miles away. NATS and its partner Saab will begin construction in 2018 with operations commencing the following year.

The path forward for remote towers becoming generally available to U.S. airports is unclear.


Mr. Van Beek’s expert assessment, the results at SESAR/ Leesburg/ Loveland and the benefits of the FTC should be addressed NOW. The pending construction at Boulder, NV could be a valuable safety/economic development to that community. It could also a waste of money if the RT test case prove that the new ATCT technology is superior.


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1 Comment on "NEEDED POLICY DECISION: Contract versus Remote Towers"

  1. The article, while interesting, does not talk about costs other than to discuss the large cost of building control tower structure. A comparison of structure costs versus electronics on poles and a comparison of salaries at the airport versus miles away and the cost of a MACT would help one understand if remote tower concept is a financially valid issue. If so, then a detailed analysis of running such an operation at a USA airport versus the smaller aerodromes in Europe would be helpful.

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