Europe ready to start datalink com in 2005

 - July 30, 2008, 7:14 AM

While the FAA has decided to postpone the introduction of controller/pilot datalink communications (CPDLC) in the NAS, Eurocontrol has stated its intent to move forward with an ambitious datalink-implementation program.

AIN has obtained a copy of Eurocontrol’s plan, which will be presented at the ICAO Air Navigation Conference (ANC) in Montreal in September. The Eurocontrol position paper sets out an aggressive schedule for datalink implementation in European airspace, as part of its Link 2000+ ATC initiative, a wide-ranging program similar in many ways to the FAA’s Operational Evolution Plan (OEP).

The paper states that the agency has secured commitments from air navigation service providers in Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal and Spain to provide datalink services in their upper airspace by 2007. Eurocontrol states that service will begin this year at the Upper Area Control Center at Maastricht, the Netherlands, followed by a German and a French center in 2005, and with additional centers becoming operational in the other participating nations in 2006 and 2007. In contrast, some U.S. industry observers estimate that NAS-wide CPDLC operations cannot now occur before 2012 at the earliest.

Also, recognizing that many operators may currently be unable to justify the investment in CPDLC aircraft equipment and its installation, Eurocontrol proposes a three-step approach to datalink implementation. Under the first step, it will offer integration support to the first 100 aircraft–called program “pioneers”–to equip. The paper notes that commitments for 46 aircraft have already been received, with the expectation that all 100 will be committed before the end of 2005. Under the second step, to encourage others to equip, route-charge reductions are proposed for additional aircraft joining the program before the end of 2005. Eurocontrol states that since datalinked aircraft will reduce the pressure on air traffic controllers, “it is consequently reasonable to reward them.”

Nevertheless, since achieving the full ATC benefits of CPDLC rests on having a “large majority” of aircraft equipped, Eurocontrol’s third step proposes mandatory datalink equipage should the first two steps fail to yield sufficient participants. Since this is recognized as a last resort, its details are not fully spelled out in the position paper.

The Eurocontrol paper also includes two recommendations that conflict with current FAA thinking, and they are likely to engender debate at the Montreal conference. First, it states that the earlier-generation datalink technology currently being used in aircraft flying Future Air Navigation System (FANS) routes over the Pacific should be accommodated within Europe’s datalink plan.

The FAA, on the other hand, has consistently excluded the FANS technology from its domestic CPDLC program. Second, Eurocontrol has come down firmly on the side of the VHF digital link, Mode 2 (VDL-2) as its data communications medium, eschewing the Swedish-developed VDL-4.

But while VDL-2 is also used in the Miami trials, the FAA has always regarded it as an interim link, to be replaced by its own more sophisticated, and most likely more costly, Nexcom VDL-3 system, which is presently under development. An internal FAA draft of a proposed U.S. strategy paper for the ANC obtained by AIN recommends that ICAO adopts Nexcom as the international standard link. However, industry sources believe that in the light of Nexcom’s unlikely availability before 2010, coupled with the FAA’s hesitancy over CPDLC versus Eurocontrol’s aggressive plan, international representatives at the ICAO Conference are more likely to opt for VDL-2.

According to one FAA official, “In the past, we used to be able to show the Europeans that we usually had the better arguments for change, and the technology to back us up. But over the last few years they have developed powerful and well prepared positions and technical capabilities that we are finding increasingly hard to counter.” Some Washington insiders believe that the September ICAO Conference may turn into a watershed event, where the traditional U.S. leadership in ATC affairs could find itself seriously challenged.