Local ATC: An endangered species?

Heathrow air traffic control tower Robert Mark posed an interesting question on Jetwhine when he asked if local air traffic controllers are an endangered species. He points back to a time when pilots and flight instructors such as himself and his students could come to the control tower, chat with the air traffic controllers and even get a tour of the tower. Of course 9/11 changed all of that, just like the string of hijackings that started some decades ago ended tours of the cockpit on airliners.

However, there are now moves across the pond and elsewhere to eliminate the local air traffic control tower in favor of remote operated ATC facilities. Of course cost savings is a big factor as TV cameras mean that controllers can be in a central facility and view an airports operation from hundreds if not thousands of kilometers away (And given the outsourcing trend, don’t be surprised if one day in the near future if all of the air traffic controller voices over the radio have distinct Indian accents!)

In fact, Robert points out that the first test of a remote system took place earlier this year in Sweden where an aircraft was cleared to land at an airport from a controller facility that was 100 km away and further points out that the Aspen Airport in Colorado is another location where cameras may soon be a substitute for what the controllers see outside the windows of their tower. He further points out that Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) seem to be the wave of the future and hence, asks how long it will be before human air traffic controllers are a thing of the past.

Should we mourn the end of the local air traffic controller? Maybe. However, if a facility 100s of kilometers away can safely do the same work and bring down the costs of maintaining an airport, then why not?

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