How does Orlando’s airport keep planes from getting clipped? ‘Virtual’ ramp control

New control system installed for Terminal C

ORLANDO, Fla. – Last weekend was the busiest ever on record at the Orlando International Airport, largely due to huge spring break crowds.

MCO said the spring break travel period runs through April 18, so any day over the next month could break passenger volume records again and again.

With so many planes moving around the tarmac, how is MCO protecting the planes and the passengers on board?

At MCO’s newly-opened Terminal C, the answer is “VRC” — Virtual Ramp Control.

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Older terminals like MCO’s A and B rely on Air Traffic Control (ATC) towers, like the tall one that rises above the middle of the airport, to control the movements of aircraft on the ramp (the areas directly in front of the terminal gates) and on taxiways and runways.

Some terminals, like Delta’s at MCO, even have mini-towers with glass windows that controllers use to direct planes as they park at and pull away from the boarding gates.

But controllers in the tower can’t see around every corner on the ground, especially when planes are moving around a tightly-packed terminal, which has led to accidents at other airports.

MCO’s $2.8 billion Terminal C, completed in September of last year, doesn’t rely on any tower to guide planes around the ramp. Instead, controllers working in a windowless conference room in a secure area inside Terminal C direct pilots around the ramp area of the terminal building.

The VRC room uses cameras, sensors, radar and analytics to see, instead of windows.

FAA-trained personnel watching the wall of TVs and computer monitors guide planes into, out of, and around the airport’s ramp.

MCO CEO Kevin Thibault said the ATC tower hands off control of the airplane to the VRC system as it crosses from the runway onto the ramp, and vice versa.

“The unique nature of the [VRC] technology is so advanced,” Thibault explained. “And so the tower... is geared to look at most of the airfield, but you just can’t reach the far end. So when we were building Terminal C, we realized that the landing side was going to get some constraints.”

Thibault said it’s nearly impossible for controllers high up in the ATC tower to see around every corner of a terminal, which is where most accidents happen.

In two separate incidents at New York-area airports earlier this year, planes clipped each others’ wings as they were parking, taking four aircraft out of commission.

With VRC at Terminal C, controllers even have a virtual map pinpointing every plane at every minute of the day or night, so there should be no accidents because no planes should be moving unless controllers can see for sure they’re clear.

Airports around the world are beginning to install VRC but it’s easier and more cost-effective to build the system into a new terminal.

Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport was the first in the United States to add VRC in 2017.

Thibault said he’s looking at bringing VRC to some extent to MCO’s older Terminals A and B.

“So using the newer technology, we’re looking to leverage that even on the North terminal [A and B] and those locations that we can help the FAA,” Thibault said.

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About the Author:

Erik von Ancken anchors and reports for WKMG-TV News 6 (CBS) in Orlando and is a two-time Emmy award-winning journalist in the prestigious and coveted "On-Camera Talent" categories for both anchoring and reporting. Erik joined the News 6 News Team in 2003 days after the tragic loss of space shuttle Columbia.