FAA Plans To Stop Operating Model Remote Tower

The Saab Remote Tower installation at Leesburg Executive Airport
The Saab Remote Tower installation at Leesburg Executive Airport.
Credit: Saab

Note: This article has been updated with statement by Saab. —Ed.

WASHINGTON—U.S. lawmakers are backing local officials in opposing an FAA decision to stop operating a remote tower system at Leesburg Executive Airport (JYO) in Virginia, a decision the agency attributes to contractor Saab.

The town of Leesburg in a Feb. 28 statement said its airport director was notified by the FAA that the agency plans to end the remote tower program at JYO as of June 14. Under development and certification since 2014, the installation was the first project of the FAA’s Remote Tower Pilot Program and is considered a model of air traffic control technology. The FAA, state agencies and Searidge Technologies have supported a second remote tower project at Northern Colorado Regional Airport in Loveland, Colorado.

Town-owned JYO, located 35 mi. northwest of Washington, is the second busiest general aviation airport in Virginia and serves as a reliever airport for Washington-Dulles International Airport. Since the FAA declared the Saab remote tower system there “operationally viable” in September 2021, contract controllers have managed 174,000 day, night and all-weather takeoffs and landings, the town reports. Since testing began in 2015, air traffic at JYO has grown by 25%, with the addition of a second FBO, a new flight training school and a U.S. Customs facility.

The Saab tower system uses imagery and aircraft sounds captured by fixed video cameras and maneuverable optical and infrared cameras and microphones to present a virtual presentation of the airport surroundings to controllers based in a remote center just outside the airport property. Controllers have voice communications and command of the cameras and a signal light gun to manage air traffic operations, supported by a suite of software tools.

“Leesburg has worked cooperatively with both the FAA and Saab for many years, as our primary focus regarding air traffic control is on safety and ensuring that those services remain at the airport as they do today,” stated JYO Airport Director Scott Coffman. “With more than 75,000 takeoffs and landings each year, we believe air traffic control services are necessary for safe operations and growth at the Leesburg Executive Airport.”

In a statement provided to BCA, the FAA confirmed its plan to cease operating the remote tower in June. 

“The company sponsoring the remote tower technology at Leesburg Executive Airport decided not to continue the systems design approval process,” the agency said. “The remote tower in Leesburg is part of a test program. The FAA cannot allow the use of an unapproved system in the National Airspace System. It creates a safety risk.”

Beyond the June date, airport operations will continue for GA pilots flying under visual flight rules; the FAA advises pilots flying under instrument flight rules to coordinate their flights with the agency’s Potomac Consolidated Terminal Radar Approach Control (Tracon) facility.

In response to a BCA inquiry, Saab issued the following statement:

“The FAA, Leesburg, and the Commonwealth of Virginia have been working since 2015 to approve the remote tower system at JYO. Since 2018, the tower has been safely operating with FAA approval, and without any errors or outages. In 2021, FAA published a new certification process, and Saab has been working to meet these requirements ever since. Unfortunately, we recently determined there is no reasonable path forward for approval of the JYO system under these new requirements and informed the FAA that Saab can no longer pursue the extended process."

Saab continued: “We urged FAA to allow the JYO tower to continue to operate under the current operational viability decision until alternative air traffic control services can be secured. We hope the agency will strongly consider the tower’s proven safety and reliability record and allow air traffic control services to continue there.”

The Leesburg town government said it is working with U.S. Rep. Jennifer Wexton (D-Virginia) and Virginia Sens. Tim Kaine and Mark Warner, both Democrats, “to ensure that Leesburg Executive Airport remains a towered airport.”

Bill Carey

Based in Washington, D.C., Bill covers business aviation and advanced air mobility for Aviation Week Network. A former newspaper reporter, he has also covered the airline industry, military aviation, commercial space and unmanned aircraft systems. He is the author of 'Enter The Drones, The FAA and UAVs in America,' published in 2016.