History in pictures London City Airport

Traditionally, every airport has a conventional air traffic control tower where controllers are responsible for ensuring that aircraft can take off, land, and move around the airfield safely and efficiently.

At London City Airport, the existing tower came into use in 1987 when the airport first opened. A lot of changes have been seen through those windows since, and as the airport now undergoes its own radical transformation, the tower has been replaced with the first digital control tower at a major UK airport…

For the past three years experts from the airport, NATS and SAAB Digital Air Traffic Solutions have been working hard to build the infrastructure, install the technology and prepare the teams… and it has finally gone live.

In January 2021, the airport’s air traffic controllers relocated 80 miles south to NATS’ control centre at Swanwick, from where they now manage every flight using live footage piped direct to a panoramic video wall.

It is a historic moment in UK aviation history, and with that in mind, it seems the perfect time to open the picture book of London City Airport’s past, starting back in 1987 with a special visit from The Queen…


In 1987, London City Airport officially opened to the public for the first time and we were honoured to welcome Queen Elizabeth for the occasion.

With good accessibility and fast check-in times, at the time London City attracted a greater number of business travellers than any other airport in London. Check out their very first broadcast video from the early 90s:

Airport construction completed in 1987.


An important moment came in 1992 when the runway was extended from 1030m to 1199m, formally opened by Princess Diana.

The extended runway was made of concrete and could handle aircraft up to the size of a BAe 146 regional jet.

Heathrow's 50th anniversary flypast in 1996.
Construction of the Millennium Dome from the control tower in 1999.


In the same year that the airport welcomed its 10 millionth passenger, London City unveiled its very own Private Jet Centre to the West of the runway. Being the only private jet centre situated within London itself meant passengers could arrive closer to the key business districts.


In 2003, a new holding point, catering for up to three aircraft at a time, was built at the eastern end of the runway to improve the airport’s efficiency during peak hours and enable us to manage 32 flights per hour.


This year saw completion of a new Eastern Apron built on stilts over the Dock Water comprising four stands capable of comfortably handling larger aircraft such as the Embraer 170/190.

British Airways, now the airport’s largest airline, commenced their first scheduled transatlantic flight from the airport in 2009; the same year that we reached 3.3million passengers.


2 February 2009, known as “the day the snow came, and Britain stopped” witnessed the heaviest snowfall for 18 years – bringing disruption to all transport systems including London City Airport.

"The day the snow came" 2009.


The year of the London Olympics was a busy one… not only did the airport welcome the GB swimming team home with water cannons, but the airport also had to extend its terminal building to create a larger Central Search area and NATS was required to run a restricted-hours air traffic service.


In 2016, London City Airport handled 4.5 million passengers. Comparing per acre of airport footprint, that’s 1.5 times more than Heathrow!

The runway needed some extensive refurbishment to make sure it could handle so much traffic, so later in the year it got a full tarmac overlay and new LED lighting throughout.

Plans to extend the Eastern Apron over the dock by an additional seven stands along with a new terminal building were approved this year, and work commenced on the airport’s £350m development programme.

2017 - 2020

In 2017, the airport’s 30th anniversary year, together with the airport we announced plans to install a digital air traffic control tower at London City Airport.

The London City Digital Tower Control Room in Swanwick.

The new “tower”, designed by Pascall & Watson, is a far cry from the traditional tower which will be turned into airside real-estate. The mast is located in the airport’s long-stay car park, in line with the mid-way point of the runway, adjacent to King George V Dock.

At 50m tall the mast itself is the 4th highest control tower in the UK behind Heathrow, Manchester and Stansted. 14 high-definition cameras – plus two ‘pan tilt and zoom’ cameras – at the top of the mast provide controllers with a full 360 degree view of the airport.

Construction of the new mast.
The old control tower alongside the new digital mast.

Facts about the new mast:

  • The sway tolerance at the top of the mast is just 0.1 degrees or else the image ‘wobbles’ and may even cause motion sickness
  • The mast uses ‘air knives’ to clean insects, debris or weather off the camera lenses and the glass will be manually cleaned once a month
  • The pan/tilt/zoom camera will have a 30x zoom for closer inspection of the airfield


What started in 1987 as an airport which many thought would fail in the first year of operation, is now the UK's pioneer in the evolution of digital tower technology.

Overnight on Friday 22nd January we successfully transitioned London City air traffic control operations to the new digital tower at Swanwick. Now our controllers are managing flights from the control room at Swanwick, 80 miles away from the airport.

It really will future proof the operation for a long time to come.

A special thank you to Vic Abbott, Duty Engineering Manager at London City Airport, for providing some of these amazing historical photographs.