A study released today by libertarian think tank Reason Foundation found that remote air traffic control towers could enhance safety, reduce costs and expand air traffic control services at small U.S. airports. Remote towers use high-definition cameras and sensors to provide air traffic controllers with 360-degree views of airspace and runways. Controllers could be housed at a centralized remote tower facility to reduce costs and increase tower operating times.
Authored by Stephen Van Beek, a former associate deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation during the Clinton administration and former member of the FAA’s Management Advisory Council, the study examines how remote towers are being implemented in Europe and how those lessons can be applied in the U.S.
According to the study, “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 and $2.5 million” versus “an estimated $3 million to $7 million” for federal contract towers.
“If remote towers were approved for use in the U.S., they would enable more small airports to qualify for a contract tower," said Reason Foundation director of transportation Robert Poole. “For non-towered airports, adding new surveillance technologies can streamline access, reduce delays, increase safety margins and create ‘order out of chaos.’”
Reason also believes that the lower cost structure of remote towers supports its vision for a user-fee-funded, privatized ATC system in the U.S. “A revamped U.S. air traffic organization would have both the resources and the incentive to embrace the safer and more cost-beneficial use of remote tower technology, not merely for small airports but also for medium and large airports that need to replace their aging conventional towers, or to add tower capability to serve new runways,” the study notes. “Such structural reform would encourage any business or self-sustaining non-profit corporation to consider the safety, cost and personnel advantages of remote towers.”
In Europe, remote towers are becoming a reality, Reason said. London Heathrow Airport implemented a remote contingency tower in 2009 that provides 70 percent 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 in April 2015, when the nation’s ATC company, LFV, took over tower service operations at Örnsköldsvik Airport and switched control for them to Sundsvall, nearly 100 miles away.
Meanwhile, two remote tower pilot projects are under way in the U.S.—one at Virginia’s Leesburg Executive Airport and another at the Northern Colorado Regional Airport in Loveland.