FedEx Begins Data Communications Flights at Memphis

 - February 11, 2013, 1:55 PM
A FedEx Express MD-11 takes flight. The cargo carrier started operations with ATC data communications on January 13. (Photo: FedEx)

Controllers at Memphis International Airport started sending text messages to FedEx Express pilots in mid-January under the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration’s Data Communications (data comm) effort to eventually replace voice communications for routine ATC instructions. Testers plan to expand the data comm trial to include United Airlines, FedEx and UPS aircraft at Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey this summer.

Ready to begin text messaging with operating flights last November, FedEx postponed the plan until the FAA installed a software modification to the prototype Data Comm Tower Automation Platform (DTAP) that controllers use to communicate with pilots. Thales, the supplier of the DTAP system under subcontract from ITT Exelis, said the modification involved changing the format of the dispatch copy message sent to the airline’s operations center, an additional requirement that FedEx requested. Controllers did start sending data messages to FedEx MD-11s on the airport ramp from both the Memphis tower and the FAA Technical Center near Atlantic City, N.J., on November 14. Testers also communicated with a UPS Boeing 767 at that airline’s Louisville, Ky. hub. They routed data messages over the Arinc network to FedEx aircraft and over the Sita network to UPS’s airplane.

Controllers sent the first text-based pre-departure clearance to pilots on a revenue flight–a FedEx MD-11 bound for Miami–on January 17. They sent the first revised departure clearance, which normally would require that controllers speak to pilots by radio, on January 30. FedEx planned to begin data exchanges with Boeing 777s the week of February 4 and to build up to “full capability operations” by March 28, said Dan Allen, the airline’s senior manager of air traffic operations.

FedEx flies 87 MD-11s and 777s equipped with the necessary Future Air Navigation System (Fans) 1/A datalink system, which controllers have used to communicate with pilots in oceanic airspace for more than a decade. “The best word to describe how it has gone for [pilots] is: seamless,” Allen said of the data comm trial. “Those two fleet types are accustomed to getting digital clearances–they operate internationally. Using Fans capability to get a clearance on the ground is not new to them. It has gone well.”

Allen said the cargo carrier eventually will participate with up to 50 Fans-equipped aircraft in Memphis on any given day; it will also conduct up to eight data comm flights daily from Newark when the trial begins there. United will participate in the trial with 11 or more flights daily using 777s, and UPS will also participate, according to the industry and government data comm implementation team advising the FAA.