Saarbrücken Airport has become the first in Germany to have its air traffic controlled remotely from a control center located 450 km  (280 miles) away in Leipzig.

German air navigation service provider (ANSP) DFS said a Luxair Bombardier Q400 turboprop was the first aircraft to land at Saarbrücken under the guidance of its Remote Tower Control Center in Leipzig.

The flight touched down Dec. 4 at 06:51 local time. Two minutes later, a Luxair Bombardier CRJ700 became the first to take off under remote control, bound for Berlin Tegel Airport.

DFS has been working with Austria’s Frequentis on developing the remote tower system since 2015. Video and infrared cameras installed at Saarbrücken deliver a constant 360-degree view of the airport to a team of 10 air traffic controllers based in Leipzig. Static cameras covering the apron and pan-tilt-zoom video and infrared cameras have been set up, which DFS said allow “the smallest detail to be seen”.

A DFS spokesperson said Saarbrücken is “the first medium-sized international airport with a Remote Tower Control.” The airport handles about 15,000 aircraft movements a year.

Remote air traffic control centers (ATCs) are touted as being a cost-effective way of controlling several airports from a single location. The use of the latest infrared technology provides air traffic controllers with “a much better view … especially during bad weather and at night,” DFS said.

“If we had not decided to introduce Remote Tower Control in Saarbrücken, we would have had to invest in a new tower at the airport soon. Instead of replacing the tower building, we decided on RTC. The investment will soon lead to positive cost-effects,” the DFS spokesperson said. “Besides cost reductions, there will be more efficiency regarding personnel. The air traffic controllers’ shifts can be planned more flexibly, and they will be cross-trained and authorized to work for the three designated airports. Maintenance and repair costs as well as the number of technical staff will be reduced immensely, since the systems are bundled at one location.”

The German ANSP plans to roll out remote ATC services from Leipzig to airports in Erfurt and Dresden over the next few years. Erfurt will be first, in about one year’s time, followed by Dresden, the DFS spokesperson said.

“However, before starting with Dresden, we will have an evaluation phase. Dresden has more than twice as many flights as the other two airports—in 2017 there were 36,480 movements—and operates a lot of mixed traffic,” the spokesperson said.

DFS does not plan to add any more Remote Tower Control Centers, although “it may be possible that more airports of similar size will be added to the center in Leipzig.”

Remote control towers have been gaining traction across Europe since Swedish ANSP LFV became the first in the world to implement their use in 2015. LFV, in cooperation with Saab Air Traffic Solutions, began controlling aircraft movements at Ornskoldsvik Airport from a remote center at Sundsvall in April 2015.

Saab is also working with NATS in the UK to introduce the country’s first digital air traffic control tower in 2019. Aircraft movements at London City Airport will be controlled from a new NATS control room in Swanwick, Hampshire.    

Kerry Reals, kerry@realsreporting.com