Budget cuts kill Miami CPDLC trials

 - October 8, 2007, 5:34 AM

Effective October 1, the FAA’s trials of controller/pilot datalink communications (CPDLC) at Miami will be no more. Citing high costs and limited operator participation, agency officials have decided to discontinue the trials until nationwide implementation can be achieved following completion of the en route automation modernization (ERAM) program, which is estimated to occur between 2009 and 2011. The FAA plans to divert its already budgeted fiscal year 2005 CPDLC operating funds to initiate studies of a future national CPDLC strategy.

The CPDLC project fell victim to the budget cutbacks announced by the FAA earlier this year, which also saw postponements in the LAAS and Nexcom projects. But industry officials close to the CPDLC program are deeply disappointed, stating that results achieved over the past 19 months have been very positive, and have demonstrated the system’s capabilities in alleviating flight-deck workload by replacing routine pilot/controller voice exchanges with data messages on a cockpit display screen.

Frank Cheshire, American Airlines CPDLC project coordinator and former line and technical pilot, lamented, “It’s extremely disappointing after a year-and-a-half of successful operations.” Cheshire added his concern that, over time, the FAA’s funding allocations for CPDLC implementation strategy studies “could slowly disappear.”

Some have also questioned whether the costs of continuing the operation–one FAA official called its funding “peanuts”–would have been really significant within the FAA’s multi-billion-dollar budget, particularly when compared with the much more costly LAAS and Nexcom projects. System proponents have pointed out that the cost benefits to the FAA from reducing the load on the VHF voice channels do not appear to have been considered. And finally, there is a degree of skepticism as to whether the program has not simply become a sacrificial lamb, aimed at helping to strengthen the budget for ERAM in the FAA’s cash-strapped circumstances.

ERAM is intended to replace all the earlier-generation computer systems in the FAA’s Host network, which currently forms the central nervous system of the NAS. ERAM is currently estimated by the agency to cost about $2 billion, under a long-term “cost-plus” contract.

Such an upgrade is certainly overdue–many of the older computers work exclusively in the long-obsolete Jovial software language, said to be understood only by a small cadre of retired FAA engineers, who are kept on a retainer basis by the agency for just that reason. (On the other hand, commented one FAA official, staying with Jovial could actually enhance NAS security, since it would frustrate all but the most elderly of computer hackers.)

A concern of many is that discontinuing CPDLC puts the FAA in the position of a follower rather than a leader in the rapidly advancing world of ATC technology. Eurocontrol has its CPDLC/VDL-2 program under way and forecasts that all
of Western Europe’s upper airspace will be covered by 2007, inevitably meaning that many U.S. operators will equip their aircraft long before ERAM becomes a reality.

Eurocontrol also offered a unique incentive to operators: between 2003 and 2005, it would pay the avionics installation costs of the first 100 airframes to participate–called the “pioneers”–along with reductions in route charges. Subsequent airframes equipping before 2006 would qualify only for route-charge reductions. And if insufficient numbers come on board by the end of next year, Eurocontrol is considering an equipment mandate. The 100 pioneer positions, which were quickly taken, included 13 European-based FedEx 727s.

Today, several countries outside Europe, particularly in Asia, are considering implementing CPDLC in their airspace, well ahead of the U.S. One of these, and to some this could be the unkindest cut of all, is Vietn