44% of European airports are loss making. Providing ATC to multiple airports from one remote tower centre can reduce tower costs significantly, making small airports more financially viable. With headlines like these, why hesitate?
Interested air navigation service providers will want to reflect on the experience of others. After a decade of research and development, and millions in investment, the financial case for Remote Towers remains inconclusive. The goal of providing ATC to multiple airports from one remote controller will provide significant cost savings, but this concept is yet to be successfully validated and gain regulatory approval.
So what have been the key challenges for the multiple mode concept so far? And how can new entrants to the market benefit from this exciting technology?
Multiple mode challenges
The multiple mode concept has already benefited from development via SESAR, notably through pioneering trials conducted in Norway and Sweden, and most recently in Italy. The concept may well be shown to be feasible in practice for some small airports in the not too distant future. However, two key factors are likely to impede the eventual transition from R&D to operational reality:
1. Impacts on ATCO roles and numbers, the unions may have something to say. With one controller providing services to more than one aerodrome, fewer controllers will be needed, leading to concerns over job security. Also, controlling two airports simultaneously will require radical new working methods.
2. Regulatory approval in an understandably cautious industry. As yet there are no European standards or regulations relating to remote towers in multiple mode. A cautious approach has been taken to the eventual approval of the 1:1 remote tower concept at Sundsvall in Sweden, where approved operations represent an identical provision of service. Proving to regulators that multiple mode is safe requires robust safety and human factor analyses for a fundamental shift in the scope of a tower controller's job.
But there's more to Remote Towers, than just multiple mode
The current difficulties of 'multiple mode', are only one part of the journey to Remote Towers. The partnerships between pioneering ANSPs and manufacturers have already developed impressive technologies which afford flexible solutions. Remote Towers, therefore, don't have to be about a reduction of personnel, nor about a radical upheaval of working methods. Other options could include:
- Single mode: HR reduction is not the only driver for cost savings, 1:1 operations may still allow the consolidation of many towers into a single building. Similar to ACC consolidation, cost savings may be driven by centralising infrastructure and sharing of operating costs such as maintenance and training.
- Contingency centre: Developing a contingency centre in case of downtime for large international airports to ensure continuity of service.
- Enhance current operations: rather than procuring a full remote tower, aspects of the product could be bolted on to current towers to enhance capabilities. Tracking facilities could detect drones interfering with approach, IR cameras could improve low visibility procedures.
- Extend opening hours: Irregular and infrequent traffic can make it prohibitively expensive to provide ATC outside of peak hours. The flexibility of a Remote Tower centre could provide ATC wherever, whenever.
- Mobile ATC on demand: Cameras and screens are much easier to move than concrete towers, enabling the concept to be used for mobile structures such as oil rigs and military bases as well as just moving them around the airport to accommodate airport developments.
It is important to recognise that remote technology isn't just about cost savings. An appreciation of the available technology and the plethora of (union friendly/controller enhancing) concepts that it enables will make the social dialogue process much easier. Involving both trade unions and the regulator in discussions to shape the project right from the start is vital.
Remote technologies have huge potential. New entrants to the market should try to let go of the pre-conceived concept that this technology should be packaged together in a particular way as a 'Remote Tower'. These technologies provide the industry with many new concepts to develop and explore. I encourage implementers to be creative, to think how the technology can help your individual needs in conversation with social partners and in consultation with the regulator.
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