The introduction of data communications between pilots and air traffic control, a key technology in the FAA’s NextGen effort, is running well ahead of schedule, and operators that are not taking advantage of it could be left behind.
The so-called “data comm” effort began about four years ago and quickly showed promise. Trials at Newark Liberty International Airport, New Jersey, and Memphis International Airport, Tennessee, demonstrated its viability and helped convince the FAA to fast-track its rollout plan.
The NextGen Advisory Committee, an industry/government group formed to provide policy-level guidance on NextGen implementation, “asked us to prioritize data comm so they could take advantage of its capabilities more quickly and in more locations,” says Michael Huerta, FAA administrator. “We had originally created a plan that would widely deploy data comm at airports over the course of three years. Instead, we used the lessons learned in Newark and Memphis to condense it to one.”
Data comm enables data communications between the cockpit and air traffic controllers to supplement voice communications. Among the tasks it can now handle are clearances, basic instructions, traffic flow management and flight crew requests. It is seen as a vital tool to help alleviate increasingly congested voice channels, and it will also enhance safety, cutting down on read-back errors and other miscommunication.
While safety is paramount, operators will likely be swayed by efficiency gains. A typical example cited by proponents is of a queue of aircraft awaiting departure in poor weather. If reroutings are required due to changing conditions, controllers could spend 15 min. per aircraft getting the new clearances out and confirmed via voice. Data comm allows the messages to be sent and confirmed much more quickly, keeping aircraft moving. The FAA estimates the added efficiency will save operators $10 billion over 30 years.
The FAA began rolling out data comm in August 2015 and expects to have it in place at 56 airports by 2017. In 2019, the program’s next phase will commence—equipping the 20 en route centers.
Meanwhile, the benefits cannot be realized if aircraft are not equipped to capitalize on them. Data comm is part of the Future Air Navigation System (FANS) 1/A and VHF Digital Link packages that operators must have to operate in certain oceanic airspace, including—from 2020—on the six North Atlantic Tracks, above 29,000 ft. The FAA is building data comm, which is not mandatory, on the back of the FANS effort. The agency set up an equipage incentive program, and eight airlines signed up. The goal: equip 1,900 aircraft by 2019.
By mid-July, nearly 900 aircraft in the incentive group were equipped, along with another 820 outside of the agreement, the FAA says.