London Heathrow airport has taken a huge leap forwards in its ability to operate through a control tower calamity by going operational with the world's first fully certificated remote "control tower" for a major hub airport.

From the remote - and windowless - tower, controllers will be able to handle 75% of normal traffic should the actual control tower be affected by fire, failure, damage or attack.

The world's busiest intercontinental hub would previously have been effectively closed by such an incident. Its previous back-up plan could handle only 10% of airport traffic. An improved plan retained the old tower as a standby after the new one opened in summer 2007. This was a less attractive option because it would have been in an unfamiliar location for new controllers and contained old equipment, so maintaining both towers would have been time consuming and expensive.

But the new "virtual control room" enables existing low visibility procedures, under which controllers use surface surveillance systems fed by radar and multilateration. It is laid out and equipped identically to Heathrow's visual control room, but has no windows and is located at an undisclosed off-airport site.

Lawrence Hoskins, chief executive of UK air navigation service provider NATS, says: "Airport infrastructure is expensive and this is a cost-effective solution that delivers operational resilience at the world's busiest airport for international movements."

NATS remote control tower
The virtual centre is identical to Heathrow's visual control room

Source: Flight International