It’s now more than a year since London City Airport successfully transitioned to a digital tower and began controlling flights from a brand-new remote-control centre, based in Swanwick.
Now, instead of sitting in a physical tower based at London City Airport, a dedicated team of controllers manage the runway through sixteen high-definition cameras and sensors mounted on a mast, capturing a 360-degree view of the City Airport airfield.
We recently spoke to Lawrie McCurrach, Watch Manager, London City Airport, about how he has found the past year in his new digital environment.
How has the last year in the digital tower been for you?
It’s been a busy year, but it’s been great bedding into the new location. Throughout the whole transition, Covid has been an ongoing thing, so it’s all been completely different to everything we initially planned and trained for. In the last two/three weeks, things have started to go back to what you would perhaps describe as normal and that has been really nice.
We had our first visit from the airport customer recently as some employees from airside operations and the fire service came to have a look around. The tower is a fantastic piece of kit, so I am always thrilled when I get to show people around it for the first time.
How are you adapting to the rising traffic numbers?
It’s been a fairly gradual increase so we’ve been quite lucky in that respect as we’ve not had any big jumps in traffic which could have made things more challenging.
The interesting thing about moving to the digital tower when we did is that the airport now has its full-length taxi way so there is no more back tracking up the runway. There are also extra stands for the aircraft to park in, so we basically no longer control the same airport that we were did before when we were based in the physical tower.
What has been easier than you expected in the Digital Tower?
In some ways, everything has been easier than we expected. Really simple stuff like eye fatigue from watching the screens was something that we and the NATS Human Performance team were concerned by as it can be a lot of time spent staring at fairly large screens, but it just isn’t a problem that’s developed, and we’ve had no issues there.
We were also wondering if having a 360-degree view compressed into 225 degrees would be difficult to adapt to, but it hasn’t been a problem and actually makes our lives a lot easier, making sure the whole airfield is always within our eyeline.
Have there been any funny moments or surprises that you didn’t expect to happen?
One of the things about leaving the physical London City tower is that we no longer have to deal with sticky rain as a result of the golden syrup factory next to the airport. When the factory was refining sugar, the steam coming out of the chimneys also has sugar in it, meaning when it rains it’s all sticky and the dust would stick to your car. I don’t miss that.
The other funny thing is that when it’s raining at London City, you get all wrapped up and get your jacket on because it’s so immersive and you actually feel cold! You forget you’re not at the airport and you’re in sunny Swanwick, so we’ve left the tower room sometimes and gotten some funny looks.
How are you planning for a hopefully busier summer?
We are currently upping staffing as during Covid, we operated a reduced operation with a standby rota with fewer people physically in the tower to protect our employees and the operation. As traffic pics up, we are moving back to normal numbers with everyone on shift and more positions opened in the tower. We’ve also been using lessons learnt at other airports where the traffic has picked up faster and earlier and generally training on operating with more flights. We are ready to rock and roll!
If you’re interested in hearing more about how a digital tower works, check out the video from Lawrie below.
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