‘Virtual’ control tower coming to Fort Collins-Loveland airport

FORT COLLINS — Fort Collins-Loveland Municipal Airport has been selected as the official test facility for a new air-traffic control system, the Federal Aviation Administration announced this week.

The Virtual Air Traffic Control Tower technology will employ ground-based video and aircraft ground detection components to provide data monitored by air traffic controllers working in a central off-airport location. The high-tech array will provide an enhanced level of air safety at a cost dramatically lower than the expense required to construct and staff a traditional air traffic control tower, according to a media release from the Colorado Department of Transportation.

The project’s $5.9 million test phase is funded by the Colorado Aviation Fund, which is supported solely through the collection of aviation fuel taxes administered by CDOT’s Division of Aeronautics.

The equipment necessary for the testing is expected to be installed at the Fort Collins-Loveland airport by spring, with initial testing and assessments of the new technology commencing shortly thereafter.

“This CDOT Aeronautics Division-led initiative to test virtual Air Traffic Control technology in Colorado will further solidify CDOT and the Colorado Division of Aeronautics as a national leader in airspace technology innovation, enhancing aviation safety, capacity and efficiency, while minimizing the overall capital and operating costs,” said David Ulane, director of the state aeronautics division, in a media release.

“This will greatly enhance aviation safety at the airport,” said Loveland Mayor Cecil Gutierrez. “With that, opportunities for commercial air service, and economic development both on and off the airport, will open up. This is a major step forward for our regional airport and its newly created airport authority board.”

The selection marks another step in the airport’s rebound. Commercial carrier Allegiant Air abruptly pulled out of the Northern Colorado market in 2012, citing the lack of a control tower as the primary reason. Commercial air service returned this summer, however, when Melbourne, Fla.-based Elite Airways started offering flights to Rockford, Ill., 80 miles west of Chicago. Earlier this month, the airline announced that it would add flights to Mesa, Ariz., near Phoenix, and is considering adding destinations such as Las Vegas and Los Angeles.

The FAA’s NextGen Office coordinated with CDOT’s aeronautics division to develop a selection process for determining the airport facility location for the test. The site-selection process considered airspace type, existing airport infrastructure and runway configuration, daily aircraft operation levels, aircraft traffic mix, accessibility to a major airport and local stakeholder support. The process concluded with Fort Collins-Loveland Municipal Airport and Durango-La Plata County Regional Airport as the front-runners for the official test-facility locations. Fort Collins-Loveland ultimately was chosen in part because of its close proximity to the FAA Approach and Air Route Traffic Control Centers located in Denver and Longmont.