Why Airline Ops People and Air Traffic Controllers are Excited About Data Comm

Air Traffic Control, NextGen

I haven’t done a post about NextGen air traffic control in awhile, but something mentioned on a panel at the Phoenix Aviation Symposium really caught my attention. It’s called Data Comm (short for, wait for it, Data Communications) and everyone on the panel was really excited about what it’s going to mean for improving air traffic efficiency. The best part of this? It’s already in use today and not just some pie-in-the-sky future technology dream.

The panel was made up of Captain Jim Bowman, SVP Flight Ops (FedEx), Matt Hafner, VP Network Ops Control (Southwest), Jeff Martin, EVP Ops (JetBlue), and Paul Rinaldi, President (National Air Traffic Controllers Association). As you can see, it was quite the impressive line-up, full of people who are in the best possible place to evaluate which NextGen technologies are going to make a difference. And they couldn’t heap enough praise when it came to Data Comm.

So what exactly is it? One person described it as text messaging between pilots and air traffic controllers, but it’s more than that. When you put it that way, it sounds like a novelty more than anything else, but it’s not. It’s going to significantly improve speed and accuracy when it comes to processing instructions from air traffic control. Let me put it another way.

Data Comm Vector Victor

Air traffic control today is a largely a voice-based system. Air traffic controllers send instructions via radio to pilots. The pilots need to read it back, accept it, and enter it into their aircraft’s systems. This works for the most part, but it’s slow. Now think about how Data Comm can change this.

Let’s say there’s a nasty thunderstorm sitting west of Newark and air traffic control is feeding fairly detailed departure clearances to route airplanes around it. Today that comes in over the radio and then the pilots have to enter it into their computers. Once it’s set up, then they’re ready to go. But then, let’s say that the storms pass by and now block the original departure clearance. Air traffic control now has to give an updated clearance and pilots have to enter it.

Does this sound tedious? Sure is. But with Data Comm, the air traffic controllers can effectively push the clearance directly to the aircraft with no pilot intervention needed other than to push a button to accept the information. These messages will automatically update the system on the airplane (once a pilot accepts) so things can shift on a dime. In a fast-changing weather environment, this becomes even more important.

The simple improvement in speed, especially at a congested airport, is worthwhile, but there’s more to it than that. With voice clearances, pilots have to read them back word for word so the controller can ensure that it’s correct. But then pilots still have to enter it into their systems on the aircraft. There is room for error that goes away when the full details are sent directly to the aircraft via Data Comm. Just think about places with a ton of international traffic, and this becomes even better. In the future, foreign pilots will no longer have to understand those Long Island accents (and vice versa) when using JFK.

Those complex voice commands are hard enough to get right with a simple one-on-one discussion. But remember that there can be dozens of airplanes on the ground using the same frequency. It’s not uncommon for aircraft to confuse who a specific communication is targeted at. Again that disappears with Data Comm when it’s sent directly to the intended aircraft.

If this makes no sense and you prefer to learn how things work through dry FAA videos with cheesy background music, then here you go..

Data Comm has been operational for less than a year, but it should be in 56 airports by the end of 2016. Aircraft, of course, have to be prepared as well, and only about 1,500 are today. But the panel all agreed that the investment was easily worthwhile, and we’re likely to see a race to equip airplanes. That’s especially true since air traffic controllers are giving priority to aircraft with Data Comm. It allows them to get airplanes off the ground faster, and in a quick-moving weather situation that’s very important.

If that’s not interesting enough, just wait until 2019. That’s when the FAA is hoping to have Data Comm working for aircraft en-route as well. Just think about it this way. You’re a pilot on a flight heading toward some nasty thunderstorms and you want to deviate. The controllers on the ground will be able to send instructions very easily to both the pilots and the airline’s dispatchers, so that the aircraft can adjust to an ideal course with less waiting. That’s going to make for more efficient use of airspace.

If this were just theoretical, it wouldn’t be nearly as exciting. But the panelists all agreed that once they could see the tangible benefits, Data Comm instantly became a priority. It’s not hard to see why.

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35 comments on “Why Airline Ops People and Air Traffic Controllers are Excited About Data Comm

    1. Kilroy – I would assume it would work with private planes if the operator of those aircraft wanted to pay to outfit the aircraft with the necessary equipment.

      1. Thanks for the response. I know that many private planes use secondary and smaller airports, but nonetheless it isn’t hard to imagine this being a useful upgrade to a business jet that is based in the congested NYC airspace, especially if the upgrade cost is small relative to the price of the plane.

  1. This is very similar to in-cab signaling for high speed rail systems. In terms of equipping aircraft do we know the progress each airline has made so far?

    1. Sanjeev – I’m afraid I don’t know the breakdown by airline, but everyone on the panel seemed to suggest that the benefit was so great that they’ll be moving fast on this.

  2. Oh good, something else that can be hacked into and phoney information given to aircraft. You know people would try to do that, just to see if they could. What are the safe guards?

    1. I don’t know what the programmatic layers are, but given that a human pilot has to review and accept the directives before they are enacted, it seems that something could be questioned verbally instead of accepted if it seems “off”. Of course, I guess even a slight deviation could make a difference, and that might not be obvious. One hopes that there are encryption protocols involved.

    2. That being said, even if phoney information is given and acted upon the separation layers are pretty big, and air traffic control would see that things aren’t separated properly and correct them, by voice if necessary.

      Plus you’ve got TCAS and the like for planes that are flying right at each other.

  3. Brett,

    Any idea how much it costs (in down time and $$$) to retrofit planes with this system? I’m wondering if it is a pretty simple install that could be done overnight during the next routine maintenance check, or if it is something much more involved than that.

    1. Kilroy – I don’t know the details on the install. But the airlines on the panel have done the math and said it makes sense. So whatever the cost, it’s not too much for them to do it.

      1. Thanks. This definitely seems like a step in the right direction, then, and it sounds like it has the potential to be upgraded software-wise as newer technology comes out that lets ATC automate the more rote/routine commands and focus on the bigger problems that computers can’t do as well.

  4. If Data Comm can keep the regional jets from getting completely hosed up at SFO whenever there are low clouds, I hope SkyWest and SFO get set up post haste.

  5. Is this the same as CPDLC? That stuff is incredible and should be deployed everywhere, even if it only handled frequency handoffs it would hugely reduce frequency congestion and workload.

  6. Has anyone this week had a problem getting comments to their email address?

    I’ve noticed this week I haven’t been getting hardly any comments sent to my email address even after making sure the ‘cintinue the conversation via email’ box is checked.

    Example, this blog shows 14 comments left not counting this one and I was about #7 comment this morning, and as yet have only received two comments. The AA fleet blog which I just checked shows 80 comments left, I received none, and that was even going back in the afternoon and seeing people were leaving comments, so I left another comment just to make sure I had checked the box and still nothing was received after that. And no, they aren’t going into the spam folder :-)

    So I was just wondering if anyone else was having this issue.
    Ok, the box is checked and my email address is correct before I click on post comment…LOL

    1. David sf – My guess is you’re running into a new feature the guys installed that does comment throttling. If the comments start coming in quickly (I have it set at 8 per hour), then it switches into a digest mode and sends each day so that people don’t feel spammed. I can change the number of comments before this gets triggered if it’s an issue. (By the way, you should get this immediately since it’s a direct reply to your comment.)

      1. yes I received your reply post, but still only two other posts from this blog today. If no one else is having the same issue, must just be me for some reason.

  7. How do they account for the potential human error on the ATC side pushing inaccurate or mistaken information to the planes? Is there, as Julia Z seems to be suggesting, acceptance or validation by the flight crew of the pushed guidance?

    1. andrew – Yes. The controllers send it over. The the pilots have to push a button to accept it and push another button to push it to the flight management system.

    2. You hit the nail on the head. While this will help reduce transcription issues, it will effectively remove the safety-check of the Pilot/co-pilot repeat back. That repeat back allows all parties (ATC and pilots) to make sure they really meant what they said.

      This is not a “no negatives” implementation because it puts the onus on ATC to be 100%. You better believe pilots will be hitting the “Wilco” button (to accept the instructions) automatically without questioning orders as they might have previously.

      Hopefully ATC is up to the task of being 100%.

  8. You know, when I read this entry this morning, my response was: What took them so long?

    The first text message between cell phones sere sent in 1992. Ham radio operators have been fiddling with packet radio since the early 1980s.

    Its great that they’re going the whole enchilada with entering this information into flight computers automatically, but it’d seem that there would’ve been space for text communication long ago. I’m half tempted to pull out my Popular Science magazine from the mid-90s covering the “Next-Gen” aviation system, and see when this was supposed to be rolled out.

    I’m also curious where other countries are with rolling data comms out. Ahead of the US? Behind the US? They already have R2D2 flying the plane?

  9. To answer Eric C.’s question, CPDLC (Controller Pilot Data Link Communication) is part of Data Link Comm/ NexGen program. The CPDLC system is active in the oceanic airspace and was active for a operation test in Miami domestic center in the 2001-2003 time frame. This program is 10-15 years behind schedule.

  10. I remember in the mid-1980s as a young Hughes Aircraft engineer fresh out of MIT, our group was bidding on the NextGen ATC. Now over 30 years later, it is finally coming to fruition.

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