Why A Colorado Airport Moved Air Traffic Control Into A Dark, Windowless Room

Nov 19, 2018

Air traffic control towers are the heart of most major airports. From high in the sky, they offer an uninterrupted view of takeoffs and landings.

But as the Northern Colorado Regional Airport in Loveland expands, it's bucking tradition by installing a more high-tech option.

The airport is among the first in the country to install a remote tower system.

The new concept, developed by the Colorado Department of Transportation and the Federal Aviation Administration, uses an army of static cameras positioned around the airport campus to generate a 360-degree panoramic video feed.

The seamless image is projected onto a wall of flat screens inside a ground-level, windowless room several hundred feet from the runway.

"We are looking at this as a solution to be able to accommodate that growth and demand."

From there, traffic controllers monitor the tarmac as they would inside a traditional tower.

It may seem counterintuitive to build an air traffic control center without a physical view of the runway. But it's cheaper than building the real thing.

The screens also give controllers extra tools, allowing them to zoom in on taxiing planes, switch between night and day-view settings and toggle gate and distance markers on and off.

Jason Licon, airport director, said it will also help the airport facilitate more flights as demand for air travel in the region grows.

"The airport's no different than any of the other transportation infrastructure in northern Colorado," he said. "We are looking at this as a solution to be able to accommodate that growth and demand."

The remote tower system is beginning active testing in March 2019. Licon said he hopes it will go into full operation late next year.

South of the airport's terminal, on top of a thin white and orange pole, 17 cameras are huddled together in a tight circle facing out. The cameras feed into the new control room several hundred feet away.
Credit Matt Bloom / KUNC

A new system for a new era

The transition marks a move away from the current way air traffic is handled out the airport, where pilots essentially communicate amongst themselves.

David Ulane, director of the Colorado Department of Transportation's Division of Aeronautics, said he thinks it could even eventually help bring commercial air travel back to northern Colorado.

"Allegiant Airlines ceased service back in 2013," he said. "And one of the reasons they gave was the lack of air traffic control tower facilities."

David Ulane, director of the Colorado Department of Transportation's Division of Aeronautics
Credit Courtesy Colorado Department of Transportation

While there aren't any formal plans to bring Allegiant Air back yet, Ulane said the revival of commercial air service could be a good way to help offset the region's growing road congestion.

"It's a long and tough drive down I-25 to get to Denver International Airport if you want to catch a commercial airline flight," he said. "So, if we can put in technology up here and you can get those people off the road on I-25 and 470 down to Denver International, (there will be) less congestion, people will waste less time in traffic and it's better for everybody."

CDOT paid for a bulk of the new tower's $8.8 million price tag. Ulane said the Northern Colorado Regional Airport was chosen to host the project because it's currently the busiest non-towered airport in the state.

"We also thought we could improve the safety and efficiency of the airport and potentially make it a better economic engine for the community, too," he said.

Ulane added that other, smaller regional airports in Colorado and the rest of the country could mimic the new tower setup in the future for an even lower cost.