UPS MD-11 pilots and controllers at Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey started communicating by text messages in May under the Federal Aviation Administration’s data communications (data comm) departure clearance (DCL) trials program. The FAA expects United Airlines, British Airways and other carriers will begin participating this summer.
Newark’s ATC tower is the second facility to start the trials. Controllers at Memphis International Airport started sending text messages to FedEx Express pilots in mid-January. This month, both locations will receive a software upgrade to the Thales-supplied tower automation system being used for the trials. The tower at Memphis, FedEx’s hub airport, will then begin 24-hour data-comm operations between controllers and pilots of properly equipped Boeing 777s and MD-11s, tentatively late this month.
Operations at Newark Liberty “will remain in a limited mode due to facility resource restraints on introducing new systems [and] procedures during the summer severe weather season,” according to the FAA’s Data Communications Program Office. The plan is to begin full-scale trial operations at Newark in the fall. In addition to United Airlines and British Airways, the FAA expects that Lufthansa and Scandinavian Airlines will participate, representing the first passenger and international carriers to join the trials. Both UPS and FedEx will also participate.
The FAA is conducting the year-long trial efforts to demonstrate the functionality of text messaging between controllers and pilots for pre-departure and revised pre-departure clearances while aircraft are on the ground. Pilots already receive pre-departure clearances in text format, but they come indirectly from ATC through an airline’s operations center, using the aircraft communications addressing and reporting system (Acars). Controllers must communicate revised pre-departure clearances stemming from weather or other factors by voice, which can slow progress at a busy airport. In oceanic airspace, controllers and pilots have communicated for years using the Future Air Navigation System (Fans) 1/A datalink system. The FAA plans to expand that capability to continental airspace for aircraft equipped with updated Fans 1/A+ avionics.
The DCL service being tested in Memphis and Newark allows pilots of Fans-equipped aircraft to log directly into the Thales automation system, which is located at the ATC clearance delivery position in the tower, via the existing airport Acars or VHF Digital Mode 2 (VDL-2) datalinks. Controllers can load initial and revised departure clearances directly into the aircraft’s flight management system (FMS). “The ability for ATC clearance delivery to send loadable revised route clearances to a flight deck at the gate and/or in the taxi movement areas is expected to significantly enhance the efficiency and speed of airport operations,” the FAA said.
The FAA initially planned to conduct DCL trials at Memphis, Newark and Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. However, the agency has removed Atlanta from the trials program to focus on the next step of demonstrating data messaging in the ATC en route environment in the 2014-2015 time frame. Plans call for deploying data comm in ATC towers starting in 2016 for routine communications and in air route traffic control centers that manage en route traffic starting in 2019.