NATS to deploy new back-up control tower at Heathrow

18 July 2023

Plans for a brand-new contingency control tower at Heathrow have been agreed, with NATS contracted to deliver the installation and transition of the new operations room.

Work on the new Virtual Contingency Facility (VCF), which is due to be operational in 2025, has already commenced. It replaces the existing back up ‘tower’ and represents a major investment by Heathrow, providing added resilience to the airport operation and protection to the nation’s aviation infrastructure.

The original VCF – based in undisclosed location off the airport – was a world first in 2009. A windowless recreation of the main control tower, it has meant the airport could operate at around 70% of full capacity should it ever be required.

The new state of the art facility will be based at the airport and will initially match its predecessor’s operational capacity, however NATS and Heathrow are working together to seek to increase the capability of the VCF to enable it to operate at 100% during a second phase of the project. Live images from ultra-high-definition cameras would provide controllers with views allowing them to work as normal and keeping the airport fully operational.

Kelly Stone, Head of Airport Operations, Heathrow said: “Ensuring Heathrow’s operations are resilient when responding to disruption is a priority for the business and sits at the heart of Heathrow’s vision, aspiring to deliver the very best airport service in the world. Investing in a state of the art Virtual Contingency Facility with NATS provides us with confidence that passenger journeys will still go ahead even if our business as usual operating plans are disrupted.”

What a second phase of the project could look like, with panoramic screens to display the airport. All images courtesy of Thinking Space Systems Ltd

While the original VCF has never used in the event of an incident, the NATS control tower team does have regular exercises designed to simulate closing down the operation in the main tower and transferring to the contingency facility, with the aim being able to do so within a few hours of it being required.

Pete Glass, NATS General Manager for Air Traffic Services at Heathrow, added: “The air traffic control operation is vital to the safe and efficient running of the airport and given how important Heathrow is, not just to the UK but to global aviation, it’s right that it has an industry leading level of operational resilience. In the anticipated second phase we have a chance to deploy some of the latest technologies to ensure that remains the case, just as we did with the original Virtual Contingency Facility 14 years ago.”

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