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Remote Towers – Revolution or Illusion?

RTC ATCO Working Position - RTC Leipzig, Germany
Credit: FrequentisDFSAerosense GmbH

Remote Tower Control (RTC) still feels like an innovation in its early stages but in reality, the era of Remote and Digital Towers began over 15 years ago with early research and development activities progressed in Sweden and Germany. The first airport to fully transition to remote Air Traffic Control (ATC) services was Örnsköldsvik’s Airport in 2015. Saarbrücken Airport in Germany followed suit in 2018. Numerous other RTC implementations have been progressed worldwide, both to deliver main ATC services remotely and for improved contingency capabilities. More than ten years collective experience of safe and successful operations suggest that today RTC is a proven concept, well explored across the globe and wellestablished across the Air Traffic Management (ATM) industry.

The popularity of remote service provision in ATC is partially at least the result of what one could refer to as a ‘hype’ that developed around RTC a good five years ago or so. RTC became something that was understood to add value, be ground breaking in the way it allowed ATC services to be delivered and that was said to save a lot of money. This claim to fame quickly catapulted RTC into becoming one of the strategic priorities of Air Navigation Services Providers (ANSPs) and RTC gained huge popularity across the industry. The urge to increase flexibility and ultimately reduce the cost of ATC services, not least in readiness for the liberalisation of ATM Markets across Europe, drove this interest, as did the new financial pressures that the European Performance Scheme for ANSPs had introduced with its first Reference Period (RP1) underway at the time. ANSPs were looking for means to structurally change their cost base, and staff cost is and remains the biggest contributor.

However, it could also be argued that this interest in Remote Operations was partially induced by a concern not to miss out on what was seen to be a trend with the potential to change the industry substantially. Remote Tower Solutions were a theme across all segments of the World ATM Exhibition in Madrid at the time: all equipment manufacturers presented their own version of RTC solutions, all consultants advertised their ability to consult on and refine RTC concepts and most ANSPs, if not directly involved in the development themselves, were keen to demonstrate their genuine interest in remote service delivery as an enabler for flexible and cost-effective ATC services. The cost of Air Navigation Services to airlines had come under scrutiny as part of the Performance Scheme and it was important to offer concepts to address this point.

Silver bullet or basket case?

The collective experience of numerous RTC operations worldwide has confirmed the concept as safe and viable. In a world where safety and compliance are a given, however, this should not come as a surprise. More interesting perhaps therefore is the question of the economic benefit that experience to date has demonstrated for Remote Tower Operations. The key enabling element of RTC for ATC operations is the removal of the inevitable tie to the location of the airport which generates various opportunities for a more flexible service provision. This in itself does not result in lower cost though and with substantial investments required can easily be a lossmaking undertaking unless applied strategically. It is when this newly won flexibility is put into action with the aim to generate synergies that efficiencies can be created. At least one additional ingredient is therefore required for an RTC implementation to become the recipe for financial success.

Combination is key

This additional ingredient can be the combination of several ATC Units in one location and the combination of staff pools across these units, an option that does not exist in a conventional Tower environment. Equally, this could be the combination of an RTC implementation with a pre-existing requirement to invest in infrastructure. In other words, implementing remote operations instead of building a new Tower building. Or, this could be the combination of remote operations with the flexibility of service hours at various airports where one staff pool can now cover limited hours of operations at a number of airports. Equally important though is the possibility of combining the strategic decision to transition to a remote operations environment with other organisational and business-related decisions. The newly gained flexibility could be used to create increased competition. Airports could progress remote implementations to make the ATC service delivery more accessible for service providers not currently in their local market and ANSPs could utilise the technology to broaden their reach. The implementation of an RTC solution could be the trigger for an airport to outsource their ATC service and by doing so generate additional benefits. Perhaps the regulatory environment should adapt as well and enable the decoupling of the service provision from the infrastructure, making RTC infrastructure provision a business line in its own right, independent of ATC service providers. Combination is key because the sole benefit of a more flexible utilisation of staff can well be achieved in other ways. Sometimes simplification wins over automation and ‘technification’.

Understand your use-case

Paul Diestelkamp - Head of Business Development and Solutions - ANSL
Paul has 15 years of experience in ATC. He began his career at DFS, Germany’s national ANSP, where he held numerous roles initially as an ATCO before progressing into management and becoming Operational Lead for DFS’s Remote Tower Control project. Today, Paul leads ANSL’s development of tailored solutions and capabilities that break new ground and reshape the way ATM is delivered.

The view offered here is, no doubt, narrow and excludes many considerations relevant to a decision as fundamental as the implementation of RTC for an ANSP. To start with, there are other reasons to pursue remote operations than financial benefits alone. What remains though and is important for a sound and sustainable strategic decision to be made, is the ability to differentiate between RTC as the long-awaited cost-reducing innovation and RTC as a strategic enabler for a revolutionised ATM industry. The innovation lies not in RTC but in the ability to reshape the way ATC services are delivered. If this ability is recognised and utilised, then and only then does RTC become a revolution. The technical solution deployed does not materially change this ability and, most importantly, only ever becomes relevant if RTC is implemented for the right reasons. So, ensure that you understand your use-case and the right solution will then become surprisingly obvious.

Source: ATC Network – Remote and Digital Towers Special Edition: https://bulletin.atc-network.com/2021-01/#p=12

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