Cargo carrier FedEx Express will become the first U.S. airline to begin operational trials of data communications between pilots and air traffic controllers in continental airspace under the FAA’s Data Comm program, a key component of the Next Generation Air Transportation System. The carrier expects to start operations using data communications on November 12 at its Memphis International Airport hub. Plans call for FedEx Express to be followed in 120-day intervals, respectively, by United Airlines at Newark Liberty International Airport and by Delta Air Lines at Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.
Officials expect the trials to demonstrate the functionality of text messaging between controllers and pilots for pre-departure and revised departure clearances while aircraft are on the ground. Pilots have received ATC instructions by text for more than a decade in oceanic airspace using the Future Air Navigation System (Fans) 1/A datalink system. The Data Comm program aims to expand that capability to continental airspace beginning in 2015 based on an improved Fans 1/A+ equipment set communicating over VHF digital datalink.
FedEx Express has approximately 70 Boeing 777s and MD-11s equipped for Fans 1/A+ data communications, said Dan Allen, the airline’s senior manager of air traffic operations. The airline expects that between 30 and 50 of those aircraft will participate in the trial on any given day.
Under the current system, ATC issues pre-departure instrument route clearances in text format through the subscriber-based PDC computer system, then the airline’s dispatch center relays them to pilots over the aircraft communications addressing and reporting system (Acars), a datalink that connects airline operations centers with their aircraft. The flight crew prints the information on an Acars printer and types it into the aircraft’s flight management computer (FMC). The Fans-based system automatically loads clearances into the FMC.
“The advantage [of using Fans] is that it’s a more secure network; it’s a fully loadable clearance to the flight management computer on the aircraft and it will increase safety and reduce workload for both the controller and the pilot,” Allen told AIN.
The operational trials will commence before the contractor chosen for the FAA’s 17-year, multibillion-dollar Data Communications Integrated Services (DCIS) program to build the nationwide data communications network can participate. Last week, the agency said it would award the DCIS contract to one of three contenders–Harris, Lockheed Martin or ITT Exelis–imminently. It originally planned to award the contract in June.
In the meantime, the FAA is procuring the ground equipment needed for the trials as an “urgent requirement.” Last November, the agency announced its intention to award a single-source contract to Thales, with a not-to-exceed price of $9.8 million, to supply a prototype tower automation platform with controller interface for the trials. That system was being tested at the FAA Technical Center in Atlantic City, N.J., and was expected to be installed at the Memphis ATC tower soon.