NATS Services Ltd (NSL) has developed and put into service the world's first full safety certified remote airport contingency control room that can keep flights moving through Heathrow airport in the event of a serious problem at the airport's main control tower.
The Virtual Contingency Facility (VCF) was developed following discussions with BAA and the airlines, who wanted to improve the resilience of the airport in the event of an emergency. The benefit of the VCF to passengers and airlines alike is that Heathrow can now be kept open even after a significant event affecting the main control tower, with delays and costs associated with such an occurrence significantly reduced. Housed in a windowless facility away from the airfield, the VCF ensures that Heathrow can still operate at up to 70% of its flights if the main control tower were not able to be used. This is a further improvement in the contingency arrangements, which before the new control tower become operational would have delivered only around 10% of flights. The VCF is based on well-established procedures approved by the safety regulator that allow the airport to operate even when controllers are unable to see aircraft departing or arriving or moving around the airfield from the main control tower, for example in fog conditions. Using sophisticated surveillance technology together with radio communication, controllers are still able to monitor and control flights. It is the first facility of its kind to receive official safety certification from a national regulatory authority, in this case, the Civil Aviation Authority. NSL is confident it can deliver similar vital emergency facilities for any other airport in the world. NSL Chief Executive Lawrence Hoskins said: "We work alongside our customers and partners to maximise the value of their existing assets. Creation of new airport infrastructure is expensive and this is a cost-effective solution that delivers increased operational resilience for airline and passenger customer at the world's busiest international airport. "From our position as solutions partner to many airports, we have observed that resilience is becoming a key issue for larger airports. The VCF provides a far more cost effective solution than building a secondary tower. "The VCF is an exact replica of the visual control room at the top of the control tower on the airport and is very familiar to the team. It seems hard to believe that they don't need to see out of the window or even be on the airport to do their job but when low cloud or fog descends and they can't, they routinely switch to the procedures they will use in the VCF." He also paid tribute to the engineering and technology expertise that enabled this unique application to make the transition from blueprint to reality, especially the partnership with BAA and the co-operation of a range of specialist contractors. Colin Wood, Heathrow Airport's airside operations director, said: "This is a world first and an important element of Heathrow's on-going modernisation. Passengers rightly expect a resilient airport and a smooth journey, and developments such as this will go some way to making every journey a better one."