Why Airline Ops People and Air Traffic Controllers are Excited About Data Comm

I haven’t done a post about NextGen air traffic control in awhile, but something mentioned on a panel at the Phoenix Aviation Symposium really caught my attention. It’s called (short for, wait for it, Data Communications) and everyone on the panel was really excited about what it’s going to mean for improving air traffic efficiency. The best part of this? It’s already in use today and not just some pie-in-the-sky future technology dream.

The panel was made up of Captain Jim Bowman, SVP Flight Ops (FedEx), Matt Hafner, VP Network Ops Control (Southwest), Jeff Martin, EVP Ops (JetBlue), and Paul Rinaldi, President (National Air Traffic Controllers Association). As you can see, it was quite the impressive line-up, full of people who are in the best possible place to evaluate which NextGen technologies are going to make a difference. And they couldn’t heap enough praise when it came to Data Comm.

So what exactly is it? One person described it as text messaging between pilots and air traffic controllers, but it’s more than that. When you put it that way, it sounds like a novelty more than anything else, but it’s not. It’s going to significantly improve speed and accuracy when it comes to processing instructions from air traffic control. Let me put it another way.

Data Comm Vector Victor

Air traffic control today is a largely a voice-based system. Air traffic controllers send instructions via radio to pilots. The pilots need to read it back, accept it, and enter it into their aircraft’s systems. This works for the most part, but it’s slow. Now think about how Data Comm can change this.

Let’s say there’s a nasty thunderstorm sitting west of Newark and air traffic control is ing fairly detailed departure clearances to route airplanes around it. Today that comes in over the radio and then the pilots have to enter it into their computers. Once it’s set up, then they’re ready to go. But then, let’s say that the storms pass by and now block the original departure clearance. Air traffic control now has to give an updated clearance and pilots have to enter it.

Does this sound tedious? Sure is. But with Data Comm, the air traffic controllers can effectively push the clearance directly to the aircraft with no pilot intervention needed other than to push a button to accept the information. These messages will automatically update the system on the airplane (once a pilot accepts) so things can shift on a dime. In a fast-changing weather environment, this becomes even more important.

The simple improvement in speed, especially at a congested airport, is worthwhile, but there’s more to it than that. With voice clearances, pilots have to read them back word for word so the controller can ensure that it’s correct. But then pilots still have to enter it into their systems on the aircraft. There is room for error that goes away when the full details are sent directly to the aircraft via Data Comm. Just think about places with a ton of international traffic, and this becomes even better. In the future, foreign pilots will no longer have to understand those Long Island accents (and vice versa) when using JFK.

Those complex voice commands are hard enough to get right with a simple one-on-one discussion. But remember that there can be dozens of airplanes on the ground using the same frequency. It’s not uncommon for aircraft to confuse who a specific communication is targeted at. Again that disappears with Data Comm when it’s sent directly to the intended aircraft.

If this makes no sense and you prefer to learn how things work through with cheesy background music, then here you go..

Data Comm has been operational for less than a year, but it should be in 56 airports by the end of 2016. Aircraft, of course, have to be prepared as well, and only about 1,500 are today. But the panel all agreed that the investment was easily worthwhile, and we’re likely to see a race to equip airplanes. That’s especially true since air traffic controllers are giving priority to aircraft with Data Comm. It allows them to get airplanes off the ground faster, and in a quick-moving weather situation that’s very important.

If that’s not interesting enough, just wait until 2019. That’s when the FAA is hoping to have Data Comm working for aircraft en-route as well. Just think about it this way. You’re a pilot on a flight heading toward some nasty thunderstorms and you want to deviate. The controllers on the ground will be able to send instructions very easily to both the pilots and the airline’s dispatchers, so that the aircraft can adjust to an ideal course with less waiting. That’s going to make for more efficient use of airspace.

If this were just theoretical, it wouldn’t be nearly as exciting. But the panelists all agreed that once they could see the tangible benefits, Data Comm instantly became a priority. It’s not hard to see why.

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