FAA Accelerates Data Communications Roll Out to ATC Towers

 - September 28, 2016, 11:24 AM
UPS captain Gregg Kastman points out a data message on the flight deck of a Boeing 767-300 freighter. (Photo: Bill Carey)

Updated on September 29 with list of participating airlines

The Federal Aviation Administration’s effort to implement text communications between pilots and controllers in U.S. domestic airspace is two years ahead of schedule, the agency says. Under the FAA’s Data Comm program, 45 of 56 ATC towers that will be equipped to provide pilots with departure clearances by text instead of voice are operational, and the focus of the program is shifting to the nation’s 20 centers that manage en route airspace.

“We’re really rolling on the program,” said Jesse Wijntjes, the FAA’s Data Comm program manager. Noting that pilots and controllers have been communicating by datalink messages in oceanic airspace since the 1990s, he described the application of data communications in domestic airspace as “a very big deal for the evolution of this system. This is going to be a quantum leap forward in terms of how we move aircraft around in the operation.”

Wijntjes was among FAA executives who briefed reporters on the program on September 27 at Washington Dulles International Airport outside of Washington, D.C. They were joined by representatives of United Airlines, UPS, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, the Professional Aviation Safety Specialists and the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority. Reporters then visited the flight decks of a United Boeing 777 and UPS Boeing 767-300 freighter, both Data Comm-equipped.

Rather than reading out a departure clearance and any necessary rerouting instructions to pilots by radio, awaiting a read-back from pilots and correcting the instructions if required, controllers using data communications can send a text clearance directly to the flight deck, which pilots confirm with the push of a button and then enter directly into the aircraft’s flight management computer. “Data comm has made a huge impact and change for us because it has reduced how much talking we have to do at the clearance delivery position,” said Sharlotte Yealdhall, a controller at Dulles.

In addition to reducing both pilot and controller workload, the system prevents misunderstandings and congestion of voice channels and saves time, allowing equipped aircraft to take off before an approaching thunderstorm closes the departure window, the FAA says.

“Text-based departure clearances save critical time, and in the express business every moment counts,” said Christian Kast, UPS advanced flight systems manager. Text communications also help improve fuel consumption, with UPS saving up to 15 gallons of fuel for each minute eliminated from the departure clearance process, he said. “From a safety perspective, text-based departure clearance achieves precision and economy of communication between the air traffic controller and the flight crew,” Kast added. “Data comm eliminates the human error factor over voice transmission and reduces the possibility of a runway or a taxiway incursion.”

Cargo carrier FedEx Express and controllers at Memphis International Airport initiated data communications as a trial effort under the FAA program in January 2013. UPS and controllers at Newark Liberty International Airport joined the trial there four months later. In the fall of 2013, United was among the first passenger-carrying airlines to commit to participating. The carriers agreed to equip their aircraft over six years with Future Air Navigation System (Fans) datalink communications, using VHF digital link mode 2 (VDL2) radios.

Widebody aircraft that fly oceanic routes are already equipped with the necessary avionics; narrowbodies must be retrofit for data communications. In addition to the widebody 777, Chuck Stewart, United Airlines chief technical pilot, said the passenger carrier has retrofitted some Boeing 737s with VDL2 radios and Fans software, which will come pre-installed on new 737s. “The deployment has gone very smoothly,” Stewart said. “We’ve got another 10 or so towers to go before the end of the year. [There is] one tower left that is very important to us, and that’s Chicago O’Hare.”

UPS will begin retrofitting 75 Boeing 757s next spring with VDL2 radios and a Fans software package, Kast said. Fifty-nine UPS Boeing 767s, 38 MD-11s and 13 Boeing 747s are already data comm-capable. A flight deck modernization of 52 Airbus A300-600s through 2021 will add text-messaging capability.

The second phase of the program will see the FAA’s 20 air route traffic control centers that manage the airspace above 10,000 feet outfitted for data communications by 2019. The types of text messages that enroute controllers will send to pilots include airborne rerouting instructions, “hello-goodbye” radio frequency hand-offs from sector to sector, hold instructions due to weather and turbulence notifications, Wijntjes said. Provisions have already been made to integrate data communications with the Eram (en route automation modernization) automation system the FAA completed installing at the high-altitude centers in 2015, said Jim Eck, the agency’s assistant administrator for NextGen.

[The FAA’s goal is to have 1,900 aircraft equipped with Data Comm-capable avionics by 2019. Eight U.S. carriers have signed agreements with the agency to equip: UPS, FedEx, Southwest, American, Delta, Hawaiian, United and Virgin America. As of mid-July there were 867 aircraft equipped under the incentive program; another 820 aircraft had been equipped outside of the program, the FAA said.

There are 17 international carriers that use data communications with ATC: Air India, Air New Zealand, Air Tahiti, AirBridge Cargo, Austrian, British Airways, Cargolux, Emirates, Etihad, Korean, Qatar, Scandinavian, Singapore, Brussels, SwissAir, Royal Air Maroc, Japan Airlines. Also participating are corporate aviation concerns and U.S. military aircraft.]