FAA Touts Data Comm Installations at 45 US Airport ATC Towers
September 27, 2016
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  • Enabling controllers at airport air traffic control (ATC) towers to transmit flight clearance information to pilots via text message will reduce flight delays and potentially expand capacity at crowded airports, according to FAA.

    The agency is touting the installation of Data Comm at 45 US airport ATC towers as a key component of its NextGen ATC modernization effort. The agency demonstrated the technology for media Sept. 27 at Washington Dulles International Airport (IAD), where Data Comm has been operational for three weeks.

    United Airlines and United Parcel Service (UPS) Airlines participated in the demonstration.

    Data Comm is expected to be installed at more than 50 US airport ATC towers by the end of 2016. After airport ATC installations, FAA plans to implement the technology at its en route ATC centers, enabling inflight voiceless communication between pilots and controllers in domestic airspace starting in mid-2019. 

    FAA, United and UPS said the use of Data Comm for controller-pilot ground communications at busy airports like IAD is already increasing efficiency and safety.

    Text-based flight clearance is “delivering real benefits, particularly during busy times of the day and in bad weather,” FAA assistant administrator-NextGen Jim Eck told reporters at IAD. Rather than controllers and pilots going back and forth by voice, especially when controllers need to send re-routing details to the flight deck, information can now be sent and confirmed with the “touch of a button,” Eck said. Information can be sent to multiple aircraft simultaneously, with copies of the information automatically going to airline flight dispatchers.

    “We’ve already seen a great deal of operational benefits,” United chief technical pilot-communications Chuck Stewart said. United has all of its Boeing 787s, 777s and 767s equipped for Data Comm and is in the process of rolling out the technology on 757s and 737s.

    On equipped aircraft at airports where ATC towers are using Data Comm, the process of getting flight clearance information from controllers can be reduced from about 5 minutes communicating “the old school way” to 30 seconds to 1 minute using voiceless communication, Stewart explained while sitting in the cockpit of a United 777 parked on IAD’s tarmac.

    FAA Data Comm program manager Jesse Wijntjes said Data Comm allows for “a much more efficient way of delivering re-routes to the flight deck,” calling the technology “a quantum leap in how we move aircraft around.”

    However, only about 10%-20% of the 1,000 daily flight operations at IAD are now flown with Data Comm-equipped aircraft, according to IAD controllers, meaning most flights at the airport are still receiving flight clearance information via voice. Wijntjes said he expects the number of equipped aircraft to rise, but explained that FAA decided it made sense to move forward with the technology on “a critical mass of aircraft” short of full equipage. There is no FAA mandate requiring aircraft to equip with Data Comm technology.

    UPS is moving to equip its entire fleet with Data Comm capability by 2021, and officials from the cargo carrier predict more airlines will install the technology on more aircraft as they see the operational benefits. UPS currently has 38 MD-11Fs, 13 747-400Fs and 59 767Fs equipped for Data Comm and is preparing to add the technology to the cockpits of 75 757Fs and 52 Airbus A300-600Fs over the next couple of years.

    “I have easily seen [Data Comm] save me 7 to 15 minutes” in getting clearance for takeoff, UPS MD-11 captain Gregg Kastman told ATW. “For UPS, we really have a time-critical sort. Every minute I’m delayed could affect the transfer of packages onto 40 aircraft waiting [at UPS Airlines’ global headquarters facility] in Louisville.”

    UPS advanced flight systems manager Christian Kast said the cargo airline saves 15 gallons of fuel for each minute reduced in the departure process. “In the express cargo business, seconds matter,” he said. “So when you talk about minutes saved, this becomes a game changer for us.”

    FAA administrator Michael Huerta has said FAA estimates Data Comm will save operators more than $10 billion over the next 30 years.

    Aaron Karp aaron.karp@penton.com