FAA Set To Expand Data Comm System

 - May 27, 2015, 11:58 AM
Newark-based air traffic controller Ray Adams demonstrates the data comm procedures in the airport’s control tower during a media event. (Photo: Curt Epstein)

After more than two years of successful testing at Newark and Memphis International Airports, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration plans to expand its Data Comm text-based ATC-cockpit communication system to another 50 airports by the end of next year.

Under the traditional departure clearance method, the controller verbally relays reroutes via radio to the cockpit, leaving the pilot to write down the procedure and repeat it to the controller, a process that can introduce hear-back and/or read-back errors, requiring clarification and correction. Once confirmed, the pilot then must manually enter the new route into the flight management system (FMS) and in many cases relay the change to a dispatcher, who must perform fuel calculations, before approving the reroute.

Under the Data Comm system, the tower sends a controller-to-pilot datalink communication (CPDLC) directly into the FMS of a properly equipped aircraft, which then alerts the pilot. At the same time a duplicate message containing the routing information gets sent to the operator’s dispatcher. The pilot simply has to press a button to accept the change.

In cases of flight plan rerouting clearance, the new system in place at Newark and Memphis has demonstrated savings averaging six to 12 minutes, according to its pilot users, which include United Airlines, UPS and Federal Express. In addition, due to the efficiency and clarity of the communication, aircraft given reroutes through the Data Comm system normally do not have to leave the departure queue, resulting in further time savings.

The digital data communication (Data Comm) part of the “NextGen” suite of air traffic control enhancements uses the proven Fans avionics-based architecture already present in most oceanic aircraft to streamline weather or congestion flight plan rerouting departure clearance. Approximately 800 aircraft carry the proper equipment to use the Data Comm technology, according to Jesse Wijntjes, the FAA’s Data Comm program manager. “The nice thing about the program is we’re leveraging technology that already exists as opposed to asking the airlines to do something new,” he said. “Some of that is just as simple as activating software in boxes they already have, sometimes it might be adding a new radio or another piece of gear. That’s sort of the cost benefit activity that the operators go through to see whether it’s worthwhile for them.”

As operators make the decision to equip, the FAA hopes to reach a “critical mass” of 1,900 or more Data Comm aircraft in the system, or some 20 percent of the eligible population. At that point, according to the FAA, a significant effect on controller workloads will result, especially during weather-related events as it rolls out Data Comm in other cities at a cost of $7 million per airport.

Later this summer, the system will become available at Houston Hobby, Houston Intercontinental and Salt Lake City International, said FAA Administrator Michael Huerta during a media event held earlier this month at Newark International Airport. Plans call for a second phase of the program to target en-route flight plan changes in the 2019-2020 time frame.