The world's airlines have ambitious plans to double the fleet of commercial jets during the next two decades as the number of air travelers approaches 7 billion. The trouble: There won't be enough controllers to help those 44,000 planes take off and land safely.
A shortage of air traffic controllers may rein in expansion by the aviation industry and economic development by emerging nations such as India, which wants to activate hundreds of unused runways to spur growth. There is a potential solution, and it resembles a video gamer's dream -- a wall of big-screen TVs and a few tablet computers controlled by a stylus.
Some airports are now testing "remote towers" from Saab and Thales that allow controllers sitting hundreds of miles away to monitor operations through high-definition cameras and sensors. The technology is sensitive enough to penetrate fog and detect wild animals on runways, and the companies say it's also cheaper than hiring people to fill vacancies at smaller or remote airports.
"It's a potential game-changer," said Neil Hansford, chairman of Strategic Aviation Solutions, a consultancy firm north of Sydney. "There's a shortage. As you go to more and more airports, it's going to exacerbate the problem."
And plans are moving apace for more airports. Worldwide, projects to redevelop or build new airfields surpass $900 billion, according to the CAPA Centre for Aviation, a Sydney-based consultancy.
By 2030, the world will need another 40,000 air traffic controllers to handle those flights, according to the International Civil Aviation Organization. Yet, there are so few training facilities in Asia, the fastest-growing travel market, that the region will have a deficit of more than 1,000 controllers each year, the ICAO said.
Partly because of that, the Federal Aviation Administration downgraded India's aviation safety rating in 2014 and Thailand's in 2015. The agency said neither country's civil aviation authority was up to scratch and barred their airlines from offering new services to the United States. After India addressed the FAA's safety concerns, its rating was restored last year.
Demand for infrastructure
Global demand for flight-management equipment such as digital communications and surveillance systems is forecast to reach $5.5 billion in 2020, according to research by MarketsandMarkets. The growth in fleets and flights outpaces the abilities of airport authorities to keep up, said Brian Jackson, managing director at Ambidji Group, a Melbourne-based aviation consultancy firm.
"There's a real mismatch between airlines' forward planning and air traffic-control forward planning," Jackson said. "Planning for infrastructure takes years."
That's what Stockholm-based Saab and Paris-based Thales are trying to capitalize on. The companies can install towers loaded with cameras and sensors covering 360 degrees overlooking runways to beam high-definition video and sound to a distant control center. One controller can manage several airports remotely.
"We can see a huge interest from all continents," Dan-Aake Enstedt, Saab's Asia-Pacific manager, said in an email. "This lets you operate an airport that might otherwise be too expensive to keep open, or help to smooth the flow of traffic around major airports as they expand."
World's first remote system
Saab's system resembles an immersive IMAX theater. A bank of screens on the wall gives the impression of looking out the window onto a remote airfield, with radar blips tracked on a desktop monitor and flights managed by oversized tablet computers that respond to a stylus. Graphics pop up on the screens, and the controller can manually maneuver a zoom camera to take a closer look at the runways or the planes if an anomaly warning sounds.
The technology guides planes into central Sweden's Ornskoldsvik Airport, with controllers monitoring from more than 100 kilometers (62 miles) southwest at Sundsvall-Timra Airport. It was the first remote system installed in the world.
Australia tested Saab's remote tower in Alice Springs, which is almost dead center of the continent. The airport, serving carriers including Qantas Airways and Emirates Airline, was run from a control tower 1,500 kilometers to the south in Adelaide. Airservices Australia, the government entity that employs more than 1,000 controllers, said in an email that it is considering "further evaluation and potential deployment of this type of technology."
The executive airport in Leesburg, Va., which has installed 14 cameras, says the concept is supported by the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, adding it cuts costs and improves staffing models.
Thales rolled out its competing version, including night-vision cameras, last month at the air-traffic industry's annual congress in Madrid. The system also is appropriate for war zones and "previously 'unjustifiable' sites," the company said.
Opportunity in India
Saab senses opportunity in India, where Prime Minister Narendra Modi's plan to bolster the economy includes reviving remote airstrips to increase passenger and cargo traffic, said Varun Vijay Singh, marketing director for air traffic management at Saab's Indian business.
Only 75 of India's 476 airports -- just 16 percent -- attract scheduled flights, according to a draft civil aviation policy released in October.
"India is reaching airspace congestion, and ATC services are on edge at the moment," said Mark Martin, founder of Dubai-based Martin Consulting.
Boeing predicts Indian carriers will need 1,740 new aircraft during the next 20 years. Someone has to help land them, Saab's Singh said.
"It's a tremendous opportunity," he said. "We are talking to the airport authority. It will take maybe this year to get a pilot project running."