London City Airport quietly switched to a remote, digital air traffic control centre earlier this year, the first major international airport to do so, and on Friday it went public with the news.
The point is to improve efficiency and allow for smooth future expansion, because the same number of controllers can deal with a larger number of plane movements thanks to new technology that provides them with more data than before.
Located beside former dockyards a few miles east of the Canary Wharf financial district, City is the smallest of London’s airports. Before the pandemic, it served 5 million passengers a year, mostly travelling on business to European destinations like Frankfurt and Amsterdam.
Now, planes take off and land guided by air traffic controllers who are based 90 miles (144 km) away, in an office block in Swanwick, southwest of London, Reuters reported.
“The job hasn’t changed. It’s still about the controller’s eyes finding the aircraft and monitoring it visually. The difference is we’re using screens instead of windows”, said controller Lawrie McCurrach from his new base.
The switch to remote air traffic control has “raised a few eyebrows”, says Alison FitzGerald, London City’s chief operating officer, but she adds so far it has worked seamlessly.
Controllers direct traffic using information fed to them from a newly built, taller control tower at the airport, equipped with 16 high-definition cameras and multiple lenses.
The images they produce travel over multiple high-speed fiber links to the new remote control center, where they appear on 14 screens that together provide a panoramic view of the runway.
Live sound from the airport is transmitted to the new control center so controllers can still hear the roar of aircraft engines and the reverse thrust of landing.
“We believe we have all the risks well covered. For example, cybersecurity is well covered,” added Jonathan Astill, director of airports for the U.K.’s National Air Traffic Services.