Here’s where I anticipate the profession of air traffic control is going to be in the Terminal Option in ten years.
The number of Terminal controllers will be reduced by one-third. Approach controls will be split and moved to centralized locations. Towers will be contracted out, and then replaced by offsite, contractor-operated Staffed NextGen Towers and Automated NextGen Towers.
The loss of the current decentralized, distributed nature of the system will have negative consequences. In the current system when one city has a disaster, the adjacent facilities continue to function and can support the impacted facility. In the new world of a few remote Metroplexes and three remote Virtual Tower centers, the system will be less robust and more likely to fail. Our vulnerability to a terrorist attack causing system failure is increased as the number of facilities decreases.
The loss of area knowledge in combined Approach controls and remote Virtual Towers will have an impact in safety and lives. In the current system, tower controllers know the area and the local information like the back of their hands; they live in the areas they’re responsible for, and they gain detailed local knowledge that’s priceless in an emergency. There’s no way that a controller in a remote Metroplex is going to have the area knowledge of a resident controller.
Non-standard operations due to thunderstorms or other events have always presented the moments when an air traffic facility earned its money; routine operations are generally uneventful. The removal of both the approach controllers and the tower controllers to remote locations will have a dramatic effect on system performance during non-standard operations.
Right now when a control tower loses all their radios, they can still function with light guns. That won’t happen in a virtual tower. When the technomagic fails the game is over.
The new systems will be completely dependent on telecommunications for basic services. Phone lines are not something we’ve done well on in recent years. The FTI program is a disaster. If a backhoe cuts a T-1 line, the Metroplexes will be ATC-Zero.
The farm team system of smaller airports developing controllers for busier airports will be dismantled when the smaller towers go Virtual.
None of that will matter. The history of people who resist technological change supported by industry is a history of failure. More about that in the next and final section.