Uplink ALPA - The Voice of Aviation

The New Zealand Air Line Pilots' Association Newsletter. As of April 2020 Uplink ALPA is a 6-monthly publication.

Do we have enough eyes in the sky?

Air Traffic Control (ATC) staffing has generated significant media interest in the last few months, after incidents both here and in Australia highlighted the vulnerabilities in rostering and staffing practices. 

In mid-September, flights out of Napier Airport were delayed as a result of the sole rostered on duty ATC’s car breaking down, leaving the control tower unmanned. Like most regional airports, Napier has only one rostered ATC on duty at a time, with sole responsibility for all the airport’s airspace. This rostering/staffing practice can make regional aviation services vulnerable to breakdown, having a single point of failure. 

In early October a Sydney ATC called in sick for his shift and no immediate cover was available, resulting in major delays and multiple flight cancellations to and from Sydney Airport. 

Following the Napier incident, Airways, the New Zealand ATC provider, championed digital remote towers as the future solution to these staffing vulnerabilities. 

Currently being trialled in London City and at Changi Airport in Singapore, remote towers replace the traditional direct out-of-the-window view with a live video feed presented to the ATC on digital screens. In New Zealand, Airways has hinted that regional airports will progressively switch to remote towers and be controlled from centralised locations.  

In May this year, Airways made its first steps with an announcement that the first remote tower would open in Invercargill in 2020. It is also planning a remote tower at Auckland International Airport, initially as a contingency to the existing tower, but ultimately as a full replacement. 

The introduction of this relatively new technology raises many questions about how it will handle things like cyber security and maintain present safety standards.  

Concerns have been raised by the European Cockpit Association and the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF). Many of those concerns are now echoed by NZALPA. 

Some of the issues that need to be addressed include: 

  • Digital reproduction to a separate location of two or more aerodromes allows the possibility that an ATC may be required to provide services to two or more aerodromes simultaneously. This is often called ‘multiple mode of operation.’ For now, there are no examples of multiple mode of operation being utilised, but the cost savings by staff rationalisation make it highly desirable for ATC providers. There are many concerns around this such as fatigue, human factors and maintaining situational awareness. Any multiple mode of operation implemented needs to maintain present safety standards. 
  • Rather than solve the staffing vulnerability mentioned earlier, remote towers have the potential to exacerbate it. Multiple mode of operation could extend that single point of failure across several regional airports. There may be one ATC responsible for several airports, and any unforeseen absence would affect all of the airports rather than just the one airport presently. 
  • What are the risks of cyber security threats? Remote tower operations increase the service’s vulnerabilities, as they provide another system that can be hacked, manipulated, or which may be susceptible to viruses. 
  • Remote towers are often cited as providing safety and other benefits, although there has yet to be a study justifying this statement or analysing the potential added value of remote towers. 

NZALPA accepts and appreciates there may be advantages in some use of the remote tower technology, such as: 

  • being able to present, on screen, data from multiple sources providing the controller with a comprehensive, real time data set on which to base decisions, and 
  • making it easier to monitor an aerodrome in adverse conditions, such as bad weather or at night. 

However, until these questions, and many others that we haven’t thought of yet, are answered, NZALPA will continue to call for further research and testing before this technology is implemented. 

For more information on the pros and cons of remote tower technology, see the European Cockpit Association Position Paper on remote towers HERE.



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