London City make history by becoming world's first major airport with remote air traffic control

London City airport. Credit: PA

London City has become the world’s first major airport fully controlled remotely via a digital tower.

All flights are being guided to take-off or land by controllers who have relocated more than 70 miles away to Hampshire.

A 50-metre tall digital control tower has been built at the airport, featuring 14 high-definition cameras and two cameras able to pan, tilt and zoom.

A live feed of footage and audio from the airfield, plus radar information, is transmitted through an underground fibre optic network to a control room at the Swanwick base of air traffic control provider Nats, where it is displayed on 14 screens.

The panoramic moving image can be overlaid with data such as aircraft call signs, altitude and speed, as well as weather readings.

Traditionally, air traffic controllers sit in a tower overlooking the runway.

The new control tower. Credit: PA

Nats’ airports director Jonathan Astill said the access to information means the digital system is “a better tool to use in keeping aircraft apart” than the usual method.

“It does enhance the controller’s ability to access data and to access information that then gives them better situational awareness,” he told the PA news agency.

Mr Astill said a number of other airports are “looking at” what London City has done, adding: “It’s definitely the future.”

He insisted the connection between London City and Swanwick is “resilient to cyber attack” and “very difficult to hack into”.

The digital control tower. Credit: PA

The remote tower technology was developed by Saab Digital Air Traffic Solutions, and has been tested at remote airports in Sweden.

London City’s chief operating officer Alison FitzGerald admitted it “always raises an eyebrow” from passengers when they are told about it.

She insisted the project is “not cost-saving” for the airport.

“This isn’t about removing air traffic controllers,” she said.

“It’s more about making it safer and making it more efficient.”

Ms FitzGerald added that in future, the system could potentially enable flights that would previously have been cancelled or diverted due to poor visibility to take off or land at the airport.

Construction of the multi-million-pound new tower was completed in 2019, with the switch to fully remote air traffic control taking place in January.

Only a handful of daily flights are operating at the airport due to the coronavirus pandemic, but Ms FitzGerald said the technology will cope as demand for travel increases once restrictions are eased.

She said she is “cautiously optimistic” for the summer season.

The airport forecasts that passenger numbers in August and September will reach 27% and 32% respectively of the same months in 2019.