London City Airport

Digital control tower cleared for takeoff at London City Airport

Image credit: Dreamstime

Other UK airports could be set to follow suit after the Royal Docks-based hub for business travellers announced planes will be monitored by personnel based 80 miles away at NATS in Hampshire

London City Airport has became the first airport in the UK to announce it will be installing a digital air traffic control tower.

The development means aircraft will in future be directed by controllers based some 80 miles away at the National Air Traffic Services (NATS) base in Hampshire.

They will use more than a dozen high-definition video cameras that can “see through clouds” and which give a 360-degree view of the airfield. They will also have access to audio equipment allowing them to experience take-offs and landings as if they were there. 

Yesterday Liam McKay, director of public affairs for the airport, told delegates at a conference about ‘smart cities’ that the project was about “rethinking and going beyond air traffic control as we currently know it”.

Digital air traffic control towers were, he said, a “more resilient option for airports, because they would have their manpower at Swanwick, the NATS base in Hampshire, which is part of the UK’s critical national infrastructure”.

He added: “So you have far more people available on site to provide you with the air traffic control capability, and actually, from a technical point of view, they provide images which we can integrate with other data sources in the airport and images that we can share with our operational staff around the airport.

“This is something that’s beginning to take shape, and something that you will start to see at more airports in European and UK airports over the next five to 10 years. So watch this space.”

Building a new tower at London City, which is located in the Royal Docks area in Newham, east London, would cost around £10m-£30m, and the price of installing the digital system – developed by Saab Digital Air Traffic Solutions – is expected to be in a similar range.

Construction of the 50-metre-tall digital tower – 32 metres higher than the existing version – will begin later this year and is due to be completed in 2018.

The airports chief executive Declan Collier insisted he is absolutely confident that the system is safe from the threat of a cyber attack.

He said: “No chief executive is complacent about threats from cyber security. Over the last week we’ve seen a major issue arise for the NHS.

“But we are very confident that the systems we’re putting in place here are secure, they’re safe, they’re managed very well.

“We use the highest level of cyber security in order to protect our systems.”

London City mainly handles standard UK and European commercial flights used by business travellers but also some private jets and a daily flight to New York.

It is set to undergo a controversial £350m development programme that will enable it to increase capacity over the next decade.

Around 300 flights a day land at the airport, which is the closest to central London and is the only airport with a London postcode.

It has come in for flack, however, from environmental campaigners and John Biggs, the Mayor of Tower Hamlets, whose borough is located beneath its flightpath.

Mayor Biggs last year told local paper the East End Citizen that he believed the airport did not have much of a future and would have to be decommissioned relatively soon because of environmental concerns. He has backed expansion of Heathrow, however.

Some 4.5 million passengers used London City Airport last year.

At yesterday’s conference Liam McKay also called for better public transport connections between the many airports serving the UK’s capital.

He said: “Crossrail is a start because it will connect London City with Heathrow. But actually, looking out to the 2030s and 2040s, we need to think about providing the same connection between Gatwick and Stansted, for example.”

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