Transport Workers Express Concerns Over Remote Towers

remote tower safe skies report
Credit: ITF

LONDON—Transport sector trade unionists have expressed concern at the growth of air traffic control remote tower operations (RTO), urging a global set of regulations governing their use.

The International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) says there should be “solid, enforceable regulations,” both to define safety requirements for RTO and to ensure that the expansion of remote towers should not be driven by pressures to reduce costs.

The UK-based ITF connects some 700 affiliated trade unions across 150 countries and represents some 20 million workers.

The federation said Nov. 3 that it had established a working group to keep up-to-date on developments in the field of RTO and to share experience relating to what can work and what should be avoided. 

In a planning document—Safe Skies: The ITF approach to remote tower operations—ITF sets guidelines for its members to assist them when discussing projects for RTO but also sets out “red lines” that the union said should be translated into international and/or national regulations before adopting RTO. 

Remote towers, the ITF said, “will essentially be introduced to lower the cost of service provisions, either to make it available to aerodromes where it previously was not or to save money on existing services.”

“Acceptance of the staff is essential for the success in getting remote tower operations in motion,” the ITF said. “This can only be achieved through a dialogue where concerns raised are appropriately mitigated.”  

According to the ITF guidance, it was therefore essential to ensure that safety levels remained–at worst–unchanged and that a full safety analysis of any changes was undertaken in consultation with staff organizations. It was also critical that “solid and enforceable regulations prohibiting unsafe operations ... under cost pressure” were put in place and that a robust plan was established to deal with any contingencies that might occur with the operation of remote towers. 

The ITF is particularly concerned that various organizations are exploring multiple mode RTO. This is where air traffic services are provided from one remote tower to two or more aerodromes simultaneously.

“There are serious concerns with multiple mode RTO due to the significant complexities involved along with the potential safety implications and no operational experience exists with a multiple mode RTO. Trials have so far taken place in unrealistic conditions and without proper involvement of staff,” the ITF said. “Only limited experience with single-mode RTO is available and currently not sufficiently shared. The experience from the single-mode RTO cannot be transferred automatically into a multiple or sequential mode environment.” 

It was important, the ITF added, that what it described as “one-sided gains” should be avoided–an apparent warning that costs should not be the sole or predominant reason for implementing RTO.

“In particular due consideration should be given to the economic impact on remote communities resulting from the introduction of RTO” and that staff should not be forced to move to a central ATC facility to operate RTO.

ITF and its affiliates were “ready to support any efforts to develop, implement and regulate remote tower operations,” the organization added. This included developing and evaluating maintenance processes, safety cases and defenses against cyber-attacks for remote towers. 

Significantly, no global standards or requirements for RTO yet exist and where attempts at regulation have been made, these have not been suitable for universal use, the ITF said. 

“The ITF is concerned that worldwide regulation is lacking,” the union said. “Although some regulators, e.g. EASA, have produced guidance material, this is not binding regulation. Unsafe operations must be prohibited through regulation. Moreover, the currently available EASA guidance material does not address all the licensing issues and socio-economic aspects which [affect] safety.”

The ITF believes that most national regulators have not yet addressed the issue at all. “The ITF cannot support a fragmented approach towards this sensitive concept, with its serious implications for operations, safety, workers’ lives, airspace users, and service providers,” the union said. “Alongside the national regulators, the ITF encourages ICAO as the appropriate body to support and facilitate urgently-needed regulation.”


Alan Dron

Based in London, Alan is Europe & Middle East correspondent at Air Transport World.