MIAMI – The United Kingdom Air Traffic industry is celebrating 100 years since the world’s first air traffic control tower was commissioned.

The tower, built by the UK government, was erected at the then main airport of London of Croydon.

Photos from Historic Croydon Airport professionally colourised by internationally renowned artist, Marina Amaral.

The building itself was to be called the “Aerodrome Control Tower,” which didn’t just signify the building’s purpose, it also spelled the terminology that we still see today.

With this tower, built in 1920, the first controllers, known as Civil Aviation Traffic Officers, offered basic traffic, location and weather information to pilots over the radio.

When traffic demand started rising for air travel, the dozen or so daily flights in service were tracked using radio-based navigation and plotted on paper maps.

In our post-industrial digital world, today’s air traffic systems are managed by computers with screens showing up-to-date information about an aircraft’s position at any given moment in real time.

NATS Swanwick Control Centre

Currently, NATS, the UK’s air traffic control provider, handles over 8,000 flights per day, a numbner equivalent to 2.6 million flights per year.

Commenting on the centenary was Juliet Kennedy, the Operations Director for NATS, who emphasised how important the history of air traffic control has become:

“We’ve come a long way since the first controllers in terms of the amount of traffic we handle and the tools we use, but the motivation to harness the latest technology to help make flying safer and more efficient remains at the absolute heart of what we do.”

Last year, NATS was able to introduce real-time satellite tracking to improve the safety and environmental performance of flights across the Atlantic as well as using Artificial Intelligence at London Heathrow to cut weather delays.

NATS Swanwick Control Center

Innovating for the near future

The growing array of airways and flight paths that are in existence in the United Kingdom stem from the 1960s.

Over the next five years, NATS will be updating these paths in order to allow aircraft to fly higher for longer period of time, fly faster to their destinations, and lower fuel burn and emissions in a society that is concerned not only about efficiency, but also about climate change.

As we move into the second quarter of the present century, these flight paths will be updated to cater to the 2030 three-million-flight-per-year target.

Digital remote tower control room” by NATS – UK air traffic control. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

It clear for Airways Magazine what sort of milestone this 100- year celebration means. From just being able to provide basic information about airports in the 1920s, to current real-world information being processed every second, the industry has come a long way.

More importantly, it is a celebration of the industry’s way of life, its day-to-day, especially as it continues to innovate over the next few decades.