FAA's Data Comm Progress Belies Criticism Over NextGen

 - August 7, 2017, 2:19 PM
With Data Comm, pre-departure clearances are issued by text from the tower to a cockpit display. (Photo: FAA via Twitter)

Pilots and controllers have used text messaging for more than one million flights under the FAA’s Data Comm program, belying criticism that the agency’s NextGen ATC modernization effort is a failure. The FAA and prime contractor Harris have provisioned 55 airport towers for data communications as the program moves to 20 centers that manage high-altitude traffic.

On June 2, a Southwest Airlines flight departing from Minneapolis to Denver received its pre-departure clearance from the ATC tower by text instead of voice—marking the millionth such message, said Chris Collings, Harris’s Data Comm program manager. The FAA claims the program is under budget and more than two years ahead of schedule, allowing it to deploy Data Comm at seven additional sites. It will provision the first new site—Joint Base Andrews in Maryland—this year, with the remaining six sites following during the first half of 2018, Collings said.

In terms of the number of operations, Southwest is the leading user of 12 U.S. passenger and cargo airlines participating in the Data Comm program. Business aviation is also communicating with ATC towers by text messages; in June alone 4,000 business jet operations made use of the system, according to Collings.

The FAA, really through the feedback of the airlines was challenged to do it faster, and that helps with getting the crews familiar with using [Data Comm] and not having to figure out which airport has it and which one doesn’t,” Collings told AIN. “They set out a fairly aggressive roll-out schedule for last year and the majority of the towers hit all of those aggressive dates.”

Data Comm is a core program of the NextGen modernization effort, on which the FAA spent $7.4 billion between Fiscal Years 2004 and 2016, according to a November report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO). The FAA estimates it will spend $20.6 billion on NextGen through 2030, with the aviation industry paying $15 billion on equipment and training.

The agency awarded Harris a seven-year, $332 million contract to perform Data Comm integration and engineering services in September 2012. The contract included 10 one-year options through September 2029. According to the GAO, the FAA has “divided capital investments for Data Comm into small segments.” In its FY2018 budget submission, the agency requested $154 million for the program, which has been ongoing since 2012. Unlike automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast (ADS-B), a NextGen core program for which airlines must equip by 2020, participation in Data Comm is voluntary.

NextGen has come under fire from the Trump administration, which supports a proposal championed by House Transportation Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pennsylvania) to spin-off the ATC system from the FAA to a user-funded independent entity. Despite “billions and billions of tax dollars spent, and the many years of delays, we’re still stuck with an ancient, broken, antiquated, horrible system that doesn’t work…The previous administration spent over $7 billion trying to upgrade the system and totally failed,” President Donald Trump declared on June 5.

In a recent article published in The Air & Space Lawyer and distributed by the Transportation Committee, Schuster wrote of “billions of dollars squandered on ‘ATC modernization,’ deadlines missed and failed reforms.” Thirteen years into the NextGen modernization “little has changed,” he argued. “While there are pockets of progress where the FAA has partnered with the private sector on pilot programs and demonstrations, the agency has spent billions of dollars with little or no meaningful benefits that are demonstrated on a repeatable, consistent basis.” Shuster’s proposed ATC reform, however, faces Senate opposition.

The FAA contends that services Data Comm provides will save aircraft operators more than $10 billion over the 30-year lifecycle of the program as well as $1 billion of its own operating costs. Airline captain Bret Peyton, who leads the Alaska Airlines’ Data Comm effort, described the technology as “a great leap forward,” in an article the airline posted on its website.

We’ve seen some tremendous success with Data Comm. Instead of talking with the tower to get pre-flight clearances, we use the text-messaging system to quickly receive key information,” Peyton said. “It’s also a time saver. Often at congested airports, our aircraft with Data Comm can skip ahead in line for takeoff and depart before other planes that don’t have it.”

Alaska Airlines currently has 85 Data Comm-equipped Boeing 737s; another 40 airplanes will receive the upgrade by early 2019, the carrier said. Virgin America, part of Alaska Air Group, has 12 Data Comm-equipped Airbus aircraft. All new Boeing 737s and Airbus deliveries will have the system installed.

Data Comm now moves fully into what is known as Segment 1, Phase 2 of the program to provision 20 air route traffic control centers that manage high-altitude, enroute traffic over the continental U.S. Already some needed infrastructure modifications have been made to the FAA’s en route automation modernization (Eram) system at those centers—managed by Leidos since it acquired Eram from Lockheed Martin in August 2016.

Plans call for rolling out data communications to three “key” enroute centers—Kansas City, Indianapolis and Memphis—in late 2018. These will test the system through March 2019; it will be installed at the 17 remaining centers through November 2019.

There’s a lot of moving parts between the airlines and the FAA,” Collings said. “I can say the partnership and the collaboration between the FAA and the airlines and the various vendors that are involved in this as well as the airframe manufacturers is tremendous. There’s a whole lot of positive momentum on the FAA and the industry side to make this thing happen next year.”