Remote Towers, where do we go from here?
Thursday, September 06, 2012

By Dale Wright
Director of Safety and Technology

The concept of controlling local airport traffic remotely has been gaining momentum in recent years. Not only has the United States investigated these initiatives, but the international community is taking a hard look as well. Over the past two years, NATCA has participated in a NextGen research activity labeled Staffed NextGen Towers (SNT). The current iteration of SNT has been named Enhanced Services to Non-Tower Airports (ESNA). Currently NATCA is collaborating with the agency on the ESNA Concept of Operations (ConOps). Although we are pleased to participate in the project at the early stages of development, we have some serious reservations concerning ESNA and issues of safety, airspace capacity and controller working conditions.

This initiative was not just an FAA idea. In Europe, several initiatives addressed working airport traffic from locations other than the airport tower.

In August 2012, NATCA considered a Colorado-based initiative originally named “blended airspace.” This initiative used technology to provide airport-like air traffic services from a location such as Denver Center (ZDV). Needless to say, NATCA did not support this idea.

There are documents available for NATCA’s membership on the Safety and Technology page on the natcamembers.org website referencing ESNA. (Please click HERE.) The ESNA Project Management Plan discusses what equipment would be used such as ADS-B and Low Cost Ground Surveillance if the idea were to be implemented. It states:

 “This system of enhanced surveillance supports safer and more efficient operations at airports that do not have an operational Airport Traffic Control Tower (ATCT). Controllers are provided with the tools necessary to deliver air traffic control to aircraft in the Enroute sector, while delivering advisories to aircraft operating within the local airspace and on the surface at non-towered airports.”

This language is a definite change to any duties and responsibilities currently assigned to NATCA members. NATCA Enroute Technology Coordinator Mark O’Neil, (moneil@natcadc.org) is working with NATCA locals, industry and the FAA to represent, protect and educate members regarding this new technology.

The Air Traffic Controllers European Unions Coordination (ATCEUC) has put their position in writing. This document is available on the members website at this link.

The title of the document is ATCEUC Remote Tower Position. This paper discusses three main roles for remote ATC:

1.    Single Tower: One single aerodrome is controlled by just one single remote tower, as it is today, but from a remote location.
2.    Multiple Tower: ATC services provided, at the same time, in more than one aerodrome from a single remote location.
3.    Contingency Tower: This concept aims at using remote towers, located in medium to large size airports, as a contingency solution.

The conclusion of the ATCEUC paper states they are in favor of the research conducted for this completely new concept, but under and after the required prior studies and assessments. Because of the magnitude of the induced changes, the studies and the assessments must be based not only on subjective data but also on proper quantitative records, which will establish the new roles and responsibilities of the ATCO (controller). Only if those conditions are met will the Remote Tower concept participate to maintaining or even improving the current safety levels.

NATCA’s participation in SNT activities has uncovered several safety related issues, which would more than likely not pass a Safety Risk Management Panel (SRMP). These issues are items such as a lack of ConOps, a lack of a set duties and responsibilities of controllers along with procedural issues. These procedural issues deal with some of the same issues the ATCEUC listed in their paper. NATCA is very concerned with the possibility of a controller being responsible for multiple airports. What will be the limit on the number of airports for which a controller could be responsible? The “blended airspace” initiative at ZDV would have improved surveillance for at least three airports. Industry’s initial idea was for controllers at ZDV to continue to work this airspace with added responsibilities to provide “ATC-like” services to what are now uncontrolled airport.

Other points for consideration are:

•    Remote Towers represent a paradigm change in air traffic control, representing a major change requiring regulatory changes, intensive training efforts and safety analysis. Implementing this concept across the various FAA lines of business will be an enormous task.
•    The Remote Tower concept is often associated with the possibility of workforce reduction. But, as ESNA proposes to increase ATC services at non-towered airports, additional control positions may be required.
•    The business case appears dubious; we are considering spending large sums of money to address a minor capacity constraint in the NAS.
•    If the concept gains any traction, the technology could be employed at towered airports.

In conclusion, while NATCA does not presently support ESNA or the "Remote Tower" concept, it is imperative that we are involved with this initiative to provide representation for the membership and to hopefully assist in developing technology that will assist controllers in the future.