EU pilots withhold full backing for remote towers

European pilots are refusing to back either remote tower services at multiple airports or cross-border air traffic control using remote technology until there are more safeguards.
Pilot union umbrella organisation ECA today released an assessment and position paper on remote tower services highlighting what they view as their advantages, drawbacks and conditions for safe and sustainable introduction into the air transport system.
It said that with the recent award of the first ever licence to a Swedish airport to use a remote tower it accepted that such innovation will be part of future air operations but only if they guaranteed an equivalent or higher level of flight safety, compared to local air traffic control.
Remote tower services allow air traffic control at an airport to be performed remotely, i.e. somewhere else than in the local control tower, making use of high-tech video and sensor equipment.
They can overcome geographical limitations, allowing smaller airfields or rural airports with few aircraft movements to be upgraded to fully controlled ones and can also be deployed in war zones or areas where infrastructure has been destroyed.
ECA said that while multiple tower research has shown that the concept can generally work, not all implications on daily operations are yet fully understood and that it would be advisable to first evaluate experience of single airport remote services
“There are currently no long-term studies on how human performance is affected in remote tower operations and current results indicate that there are certain limitations for humans with regards to working in a remote environment,” stated the report authors.
It added that only few air traffic controllers hold ratings for more than one tower and that it is highly unlikely that these would be exercised in a single shift today.
“In multiple airport operations, controllers might be required to work at airports with completely different or very similar layouts and weather patterns,” it said. “Both can lead to a fragmented situational awareness, causing misunderstandings, mix-ups and other working errors, thus having the potential to significantly decrease the safety of operations.”
It warns that the competency of controllers to evaluate the situation at a specific airport might also decrease with increased workload and numerous distractions, noting that “studies have shown that head-down time increases in a multiple airport remote environment.”
In respect of cross border operations, ECA said remote tower technology will open opportunities for providers to seek a different regulatory environment to that of the state where the airport is based.
“In a competitive market, this risks to open the door to ‘regulatory forum shopping’ where providers may seek a forum with more lenient and commercially expedient regulatory including social and taxation regimes,” it said. “This could leave some providers with less oversight and regulation than others, distort the market between remote and normal on-site staffed aerodromes, and expose staff to the risk of casualised employment relationships with the attendant possible degradation in safety culture.”
Commenting on the ECA position paper, ECA president Nico Voorbach said the pilot community remained open-minded to new technologies. “This is why we identified a number of areas where further work is needed to ensure that remote tower operations don’t pose safety risks and don’t lose their attractiveness.”
At the same time, as any new technology, there are areas of concern. “Remote tower services – if introduced on a wider scale – will change the way we operate,” said Álvaro Gammicchia, ECA Technical Board director. “This means we need to think strategically and develop new common standards, recommended practices, and flight procedures to ensure safe and secure operations.
“For example, new methods for separation of aircraft and an airspace re-design might be necessary, as well as adequate contingency measures and procedures in case of hardware malfunction. Cyber security and protecting data transfers between aircraft and ground from hacking or viruses is another essential area of concern. All in all, we know that there are vast challenges, but there are also solutions.”
Areas of Concern

Contingency measures at conventional towers include the use of handheld transmitters or light-guns, as well as signal rockets. Should the tower building become unusable, contingency operations could easily continue from a nearby location with the above-mentioned means, at least at small and medium-sized airports. This is different for RTS, where no controller is located at the airport itself. While data transmissions can be backed-up by a second system or other measures, the impact of hardware failures might be fatal for operations. Cases have been reported, where bugs sat on the camera blocking the view. The outage of a camera or a display at the controller working position (CWP) covering essential parts of the airport area or traffic circuit are likely to happen at some stage.
ACTION: Adequate contingency procedures in case of hardware malfunctions (e.g. camera, controller working positions) and system downgrades shall be in place.
Cyber-security has become an increasing source of concern within the aviation community and remote tower operations have the potential to increase the vulnerabilities of the system given the very nature of the concept. Precautionary measures and contingency procedures shall be established to prevent an attack, and to minimise its consequences. ANSPs and aircraft operators shall establish a mandatory reporting system for cyber-related occurrences, and cyber security shall become an essential part of their security management system.
ACTION: All aircraft systems, on-ground systems/networks and data transfers between aircraft and ground shall be protected from hacking, data manipulation and viruses.
Traffic separation, especially for VFR flights is usually based on visual observation in conventional towers. Displays at RTS CWPs do not allow for visual evaluation of airborne aircraft positions. This is why the usage or radar data appears to be essential for RTS operation. This in turn might necessitate the need for transponder carriage by aircraft intending to use that airport. It has to be evaluated how far adjustments to current airspace design and specifications are necessary, e.g. mandating the use of transponders for all aircraft. General aviation aircraft are likely to be affected by revised rules.
From a pilot’s point of view there should be no changes to current operations. Yet, it might be necessary to revise communication procedures and charting requirements. Especially in a Multiple RTS environment, the re-transmit function that allows users to listen to radiotelephony on multiple frequencies might be a feature to ensure safe operations. Mentioning the airport’s name in clearance (e.g. cleared to land runway 20 Dresden) might be another option of avoiding misunderstandings.
ACTION: Communication procedures and regulations for airspace design around RTS airports (e.g. transponder mandatory zones) shall be evaluated and changed where necessary.
Coordination between airspace users and ANSPs will have to be increased to accommodate all aircraft movements, be they planned or unplanned. As in today’s ATC environment, staff shortages may happen. While this is usually a problem in the en-route part of flights today, availability of tower controllers might be the limiting factor in RTS operations, with not enough staff available to cater for all flights. Unexpected flights such as VFR traffic or flights that have to land due to emergencies or diversions might push the remotely controlled tower even further beyond capacity.
While slot allocations or per-prior-request-only operations might counteract such problems, there is a clear shift of responsibility for safety from ANSPs to pilots and operators. It is not acceptable that unavailability of tower controllers leads to hazardous situations.
ACTION: Holding patterns, diversions or hazardous situations due to ATC staff shortages shall be avoided.
It is air traffic controllers who nowadays often do weather assessment and the evaluation of the runway surfaces status. In case of RTS operations these would have to be performed by dedicated staff or adequate systems and sensors. It is also questionable how far weather assessment can be done by RTS controllers when being presented with a compressed or limited view of the airport. The quality of reports must not be lower than in today’s environment.
ACTION: Ensure that real-time weather data and runway surface status is accurately assessed and transmitted to pilots.

Read More:
ECA Full Report
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Fortune Favours
Vision On
Virtual Vanguard