Digital control tower marks 30 years of innovation at City Airport

Alison FitzGerald
U.S. Owners Put City Airport Up For Sale
Source: Getty

On this day exactly 30 years ago, the first test flight touched down on the runway at London City Airport in London’s Royal Docks, followed six months later with the airport’s official opening by the Queen.

The visionary idea for an urban airport in East London was a bold one which had its critics but carried a clear mission: to help regenerate the Docklands and serve the City with a new business travel offering, characterised by speed, location and convenience. If you used the airport in 1988, the first full year of operation (and incidentally, the first year of construction on Canary Wharf nearby) you would have joined 133,000 passengers, with a choice of three destinations.

Fast forward to today and there are around 4.5m annual passengers, with flights departing to over 45 destinations across the world, connecting London’s business community with opportunities both domestic and international.

So it’s fair to say that at London City Airport, innovation is part of our DNA.

As an agile, medium-sized business, the airport has the advantageous capacity to adopt technology with relative ease which improves the business passenger experience and sets a global aviation standard. Also, being situated in East London, it is in close proximity to one of the most thriving tech communities in Europe, so the talent to come up with new ideas is on our doorstep.

It was with excitement and expectation that London City Airport recently unveiled that it will adopt the UK’s first digital air traffic control tower, working closely with NATS, the UK’s leading provider of air traffic control services.

When the digital control tower is introduced in 2019, air traffic controllers will have a wealth of real-time information at their fingertips, in a new control room at NATS in Hampshire. A live feed sent via super-fast secure fibre connections from 14 high definition cameras will form a 360 degree panoramic view of the airfield. This view on HD screens will be supplemented with operational data such as aircraft call signs in combination with advanced viewing tools such as object tracking and high definition 30x zoom. Controllers will be able to make well-informed and speedy decisions, which will ultimately improve safety and efficiency. It’s part of a range of innovations which will mean we can safeguard our 20 minute door-to-plane proposition, while accommodating up to 2m additional passengers.

Technology is crucial to how we run our business and forms the bedrock of our plans for a smart, connected airport of the future that will become a reality within a few years thanks to a £350m airport development programme. It’s also helping us meet the increasing expectations of our passengers, 54 per cent of whom last year travelled for business purposes.

We know what’s important to you – chiefly your time – so one of the airport’s main business challenges is helping our passengers get from A to B quickly and efficiently.

But your journey doesn’t just start when you enter the airport – it’s much earlier than that, including the point of booking, the advance check in and the journey from your office – from Bank to Bankenviertel. That’s why we’re planning to develop a new mobile solution to assimilate all the ingredients of your business trip – from the planning to get you to the airport and away at your destination, to a predicted journey time through the airport, plus flight information, retail, food and beverage pre-order, and hotel booking options.

In London City Airport’s 30th anniversary year, the airport is on course to be one of the most advanced in the country. This is apt given London’s population is forecast to grow to 10m in the next decade. Connectivity is going to be more important than ever, especially post-Brexit. London City Airport is investing now to ensure we can meet the demands of existing and future passengers – perhaps they will live in one of 260,000 new homes or occupy one of the 210,000 new jobs expected in East London.

In the meantime, public and private investment in smart infrastructure will ensure the huge potential of this growth opportunity is realised, building on the momentum of the Elizabeth Line. That might be new Thames river crossings or superfast 5G mobile networks – but binding these together is a demonstration that the visionary approach of three decades ago remains undiminished.

Alison FitzGerald is chief operating officer at London City Airport.

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