Remote air traffic control: Cost effective but will India's notorious runway incursions keep it incident free
Airports Authority of India is drawing up plans to test mobile air traffic control towers.
From next year, it is possible that your flight is being managed either by an air traffic control tower on trucks or from a remote location, not from the airport premises. The Airports Authority of India is drawing up plans to test mobile ATC towers and those that operate remotely, in a bid to save costs and provide effective ATC services to small airports where operations are mushrooming.
So, instead of having ATC towers at Ahmedabad as well as all other small airports within Gujarat, the plan is to just have these services at Ahmedabad airport – and the ATCs present here will direct takeoffs and landings at other airports within the state either remotely or through towers which are mobile, mounted on trucks.
This is a fine idea, implemented in some other countries like Canada, Sweden etc but will it work for India? We are notorious for our unseemly runway incursions, from all manner of animals and humans collecting firewood from airport premises, besides other forms of encroachments.
This piece in India Today shows how a dog on the runway at the Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport of Mumbai lead a Jet Airways flight to abort take-off while four others were made to hover in the skies for more than 15 minutes last year. If we are unable to prevent animal and human incursions on runways when the ATC services are present at the airport, will we be able to manage landings and takeoffs at small airports with remote ATC operations without incidents?
This piece in Telegraph talks of passenger safety is being threatened across Madhya Pradesh’s airports due to “regular” encounters with wild boars, jackals, panthers, nilgai, goats, stray dogs, sloth bears, wildcats etc on runways.
Of course there are plus points too of such a move towards remote ATC facilities. As this piece in Indian Express explains, the economics of such a move is compelling, though here again, problems with mobile signal and therefore connectivity issues will have to be sorted out. Or we could see ATC operations suddenly going blank (happens at larger airports with in-house ATC too) on power failures, signal issues. The AAI says it had budgeted for Rs 15 crore to test remote ATC facilities and has already issued an Expression of Interest (EoI) from interested parties for such a move. The first such tower is likely coming up at Ahmedabad by December next year.
As for mobile ATC towers, these are mounted on a vehicle high enough for performing the function – they can obviously be moved from one nearby airport to another unlike the fixed towering buildings which are currently built at each airport. AAI says a pilot for mobile towers will be conducted by February next year, with an approximate cost of Rs 82 crore. “Mobile ATC towers provide air traffic control at any remote location though a 6-wheel drive, with elevated ATC Cabin fitted with radios, weather monitoring systems to meet operational requirements at small airports”.
The ideas for mobile and remote ATC operations are being implemented when the ambitious regional connectivity plan under 'UDAAN' is already operational. Remember, India had close to 400 ghost airports before UDAAN was launched – airports from where not a single flight was being operated. Built over the years, these airports are situated in remote locations, in India’s hinterland and most of them were of little interest to airline due to thin traffic potential.
Now, with UDAAN which envisages a subsidy by the government for flight operations to breathe life into ghost airports, there is obviously a growing need to also provide crucial functions like the ATC operations at minimal cost to the government. Specially in states like Gujarat, Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh where multiple small airports exist within a short distance from each other.
Meanwhile, even as the AAI is busy trying to provide cost effective ATC services in states with multiple small airports, it has already sounded the clarion call for second airports to come up in India’s metros. Remember, our large metros which account for a bulk of the domestic and international air traffic have single airports, which are overflowing as traffic increases manifold. Each of the big metros needs at least one more airport.
Already the government has given site approval for a second airport at Jewar in Greater Noida to ease the load off the Delhi International Airport; the choked Mumbai airport should have a savior in the upcoming Navi Mumbai project in some years. Now, Chennai and Kolkata are next on this list, with the AAI in dialogue with respective state governments to kickstart the process. Both these airports are also bursting at the seams.
Another interesting development for frequent flyers would be the conversion of four airports – at Patna, Raipur, Ranchi and Guwahati – into 24x7 airports. This will mean extended time for flight operations and this should become possible by the Summer schedule of 2018.