A Demo On How Data Comm Is Going to Make Flying Better

Back in May I wrote about how airlines, air traffic controllers, and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) were all getting excited about Data Comm and how it was going to improve air travel. The FAA has now flipped it on at LAX, and I was invited to get a real demonstration of how it works both in the tower and on a UPS 767. I know a lot of you had questions after the last post, and I think most of them can now be answered.

Data Comm is specifically about giving clearances to pilots. Traditionally, this is handled by talking over the radio. Data Comm, however, is like a text message. And yes, to answer a question from the last post, this uses CPDLC. Airlines use this to communicate with US air traffic controllers over long stretches of water already. It’s now been given a a sexier name. (I didn’t say it was sexy, just sexier than CPDLC.) This technology is awesome for several reasons, not the least of which being that the controller shortage can now be resolved by hiring teenage girls with cell phones.

Air Traffic Control Kids

The FAA is racing to install Data Comm technology in the big towers in the US in short order. It will also be installed in the centers that handle flights in the air starting in 2019. Airlines need to install this on their aircraft as well in order to use it. Some are further along than others.

Since this is used overwater, most international aircraft have it installed. It’s domestic airplanes that might not. Though I didn’t get specifics by airline, I think it’s safe to say that the older the airplane, the less likely it is to have it. Airbus also makes modifications much more expensive than other manufacturers, so that hurts the rollout. Further, even if international aircraft have it installed, there’s still a fairly simple process they need to do to start using it for clearances. Not all have bothered.

Here’s how it works. Today, flight plans are shared between airline dispatchers and air traffic control. The dispatcher also sends the flight plan directly to the aircraft. Air traffic control sends these on to the towers at each airport, and they print them out on flight strips. (Yes, they still use paper, incredibly.)

Flight Strip ATC

The controller will call up the pilots of the aircraft and deliver the clearance. This includes more info which the pilots may not have in their systems. There could also be changes to the original plan which the controllers would convey. The instructions can be fairly complicated. Here’s the example the FAA played for us.

Keep in mind that they’re talking very slowly and clearly with no discernible accent. Try doing this at JFK with a controller who has a thick Long Island accent. Then try having the pilot be foreign as well. This can get painful. (I’m sure someone who loves LiveATC can link to some awful example.)

Now let’s look at Data Comm. Instead of reading the clearance over the radio, the air traffic controller can send it via Data Comm.

List of Cleared Aircraft

This was up in the tower at LAX. On the left are all the aircraft that require voice clearance. On the right are the airplanes using Data Comm. If the black box is filled in, it means that the data link has been connected. You’ll see UPS9904 has an arrow next to it. That means the data is being downloaded by the aircraft. (All the ones above it show a “W” which means that the aircraft has responded with “Wilco” meaning they will comply with the instructions.)

On the UPS 767, it looks like this when the link is connected.

Data Link Established

When the data is downloaded to the aircraft, the clearance can be reviewed in the system. This often will match the data that’s already been sent over by dispatch. That means the pilots can just reply with “Wilco” and be done.

Receiving Clearance

But then let’s say that a change is made. This isn’t uncommon. In that case, the controller can type in the new clearance and send it over to both the aircraft and to the airline’s dispatch straight away, saving all kinds of time that previously would have required the pilots to talk to dispatch.

Adding Revised Clearance

Then the pilots can review the new clearance.

Revised Clearance

Assuming it looks fine, the pilots would then push a button to load the new information into the system. They would also respond with “Wilco” and be good to go.

This speeds things up dramatically and does improve accuracy as well. It’s no wonder the FAA wants to show this off.

[Original air traffic controller photo and texting girl photo via Shutterstock.]

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