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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22 Comments on "A Demo On How Data Comm Is Going to Make Flying Better"

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Thanks for including the audio, Brett. Even as clear as those voices were, I can’t imagine trying to write those instructions down as they come across or trying to make a lot of changes to whatever the plane already has in its system. As you mentioned, for international airports where the ATC and the pilots do not share the same native language, and thus may have trouble understanding each other’s accents, this will be huge. I’d love to see more posts from you on ATC, including maybe “ATC for dummies” and “Airplane routing for dummies” posts that explain some of… Read more »

Kilroy, I retired as a controller after 27 years. Worked at SAT, Washington, Fort Worth and Jacksonville centers and also TMU. If you ever have any questions about anything for me, send me an email, if be glad to answer any questions you have about ATC.

First off, thanks for your service and for doing a job that I am sure I could never do. I don’t have your email address (and best not to post it publicly, lest you get massive spam), but as a layperson I find the whole topic of ATC very fascinating. If you have some good detailed articles or books that you could link to or recommend (I’m thinking something along the lines of Air Traffic Control 101, or ATC for Dummies, or even a few chapters explaining ATC to student pilots), I’d be much obliged. I don’t know my ATC… Read more »

There are a couple of basic treatments on line http://science.howstuffworks.com/transport/flight/modern/air-traffic-control.htm and (more detailed) http://www.jdtllc.com/ATC%20Basics.htm

FAA also has a small history office that tracks aviation history, including the history of ATC. That office has over the years published several book length histories of US aviation policy and regulation https://www.faa.gov/about/history/history_pubs/ The current FAA historian is Terry Kraus. She recently published a brief history of ATC in the US. https://www.faa.gov/about/history/milestones/media/Celebrating_75_Years_of_Federal_Air_Traffic_Control.pdf

Bob S.

Is that aircraft receiver really still using a green phosphorous screen?


YES, its an OLD UPS 767


How much new training is required for the pilots and how have the airlines (generally speaking) planned to ramp up the training component?

Thanx for the article — it speaks to the #AvGeek side of my brain!

Just for the record, the statement that says “all the clearances at the left still require a voice reading” isn’t exactly correct. Those airplanes are still equipped with PDC, or pre-departure clearance. As long as those routes are “as-filed”, which is about 95 percent of the time, the pilot will not have to talk to clearance delivery unless he has a question. Data Comm does have promise. But right now, only ten percent or so planes can do it, and that’s not going to change for a while. We were told the cost to retrofit was in the hundred thousands… Read more »

You would be surprised how hard it is to replace paper strips with an electronic system. This is often mainly related to controllers. They write in pen on the strips. This is hard to simulate via a computer (even with a stylus it just tends to take longer and be clunky).

Only on Cranky Flier do you get this kind of stuff. Thanks. Probably a few dorks like myself, non-pilots, who love to listen in, here and there. Voices–languages–accents. Amazing how this has worked as well as it has. Have you ever listened in to an Air France pilot communicating with ATC in the US (“I know, it’s pretty, but does anyone have a clue what that guy just said?”), or even a Brit. on a British Speedbird (“I know, it’s the King’s English but, say what?”) Accents: A real New Yorker; a true-blue Bostonian; a real Cajon from Narlens; someone… Read more »
When you write ‘Assuming it looks fine, the pilots would then push a button to load the new information into the system.’ do you mean that with one push that cleared route gets loaded into the FMS for the auto flight system? So no more manual FMS programming? That would be sweet. But like previously mentioned not many planes have this capability, not even the new E175s, because yes, who is going to pay to install it in the plane (or pay to choose it as an option when they purchase a new aircraft.)? And yes, even on the new… Read more »

it seems ludicrous that this does not already exist

Dan Bloemer
I am an international pilot for a major U.S. carrier and I think I can help with understanding how Data Comm works from the pilot’s perspective. In the distant past (from a technology perspective…as in prior to the 1990’s), Instrument Flight Rules (IFR, under which almost all air carrier flights are dispatched) pre-departure route clearances were given to the pilots verbally over the radio. The pilot or dispatcher would request the desired route by filing a flight plan. About 30 minutes prior to their intended departure, the pilots would then call the departure airport’s clearance delivery (or ground controller at… Read more »