FAA Shows Off New Air-Traffic Communication Tech in Minneapolis

The new technology, called Data Comm, allows air traffic controllers and pilots to communicate is a faster and safer way.

by Janet Moore, Star Tribune (Minneapolis) / April 12, 2017
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(TNS) -- Data intended to guide the Delta Air Lines 757 jet into the skies above the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport arrived in the cockpit Tuesday with a gentle ping.

Delta Capt. Jon Pendleton studied a series of numbers and letters that appeared on a small screen and said it would make his life a whole lot easier -- and the traveling public’s, as well.

Called Data Comm, the new technology employed by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) permits air traffic controllers and pilots to communicate electronically, supplementing radio voice communications between the two. It’s quicker and safer, according to the FAA.

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It’s now being used for many of the 400,000 flights taking off and landing at MSP every year. To date, 55 airports across the country have adopted the Data Comm technology, including MSP, which came on line in November. It’s unclear why the FAA is now touting the system five months after it was introduced; an FAA spokeswoman said “this is when the media day fell in the schedule.”

Data Comm “allows air traffic controllers and pilots to communicate with data communications, kind of like texting and e-mail, instead of having to talk [to the tower] using your voice,” Pendleton said during a demonstration Tuesday.

This is especially useful when weather -- the wild card of aviation in Minnesota, whether it’s snow or thunderstorms -- routinely causes flights to be rerouted and delayed.

Data Comm is part of a broader $35 billion FAA overhaul of the nation’s airspace that involves switching from a radar-based navigation system to one guided by satellite. This effort, called the Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen), has been in the works for more than a decade, and marred by delay and controversy.

Both the U.S. Department of Transportation’s inspector general and the Government Accountability Office have characterized the NextGen project as one lacking focus and mired in bureaucracy.

The media demonstration on Tuesday at MSP also comes at a time when President Donald Trump and some members of Congress have called for the air traffic control system to be privatized and transferred to a federally chartered nonprofit corporation (similar to one used in Canada). It’s a proposal that has been spurned by some industry groups.

When asked about possible privatization, FAA Assistant Administrator for Next Gen James Eck said, “there is interest in a new government model.” But, he added, “we’re continuing to move along with NextGen.”

FAA officials were quick to point out that the Data Comm part of NextGen has been implemented two years ahead of schedule and under budget. The current program covers communications, including clearances, revised flight plans and advisories, while aircraft are on the ground. An advanced system involving planes while they’re actually in flight won’t be rolled out until 2019.

Under the old system (still in use), air traffic controllers use a two-way radio to transmit instructions to planes awaiting take off. Pilots jot down these notes on paper, then read the instructions back to the tower. If there’s an error, the process must be repeated until it’s correct. This can take 10 to 15 minutes -- all while passengers sit in the cabin waiting to begin their trip.

With Data Comm, air traffic controllers enter flight departure clearance instructions into a computer and send information electronically to the cockpit. Pilots confirm that they got the information, and press a button to enter the instructions to the aircraft’s flight management system. Capt. Pendleton says this takes maybe two minutes.

“If you send it electronically, you only send it once,” said Pete Dwyer, an air traffic controller at MSP. “By voice, you can make change after change after change.”

Not all planes use the new system, and participation by airlines is voluntary. So far, the major airlines -- United, American, Delta and Southwest -- and others have signed on. 

Delta Capt. Rich Terry said nearly 300 aircraft in the Atlanta-based carrier’s system have been outfitted with the Data Comm technology, with an additional 250 aircraft in the pipeline.

Terry noted that the system will also yield environmental benefits, because it reduces the amount of time aircraft linger on the tarmac. “Obviously that’s a benefit to us economically, but it also has a huge impact to the environment in reduced carbon emissions,” he said.

©2017 the Star Tribune (Minneapolis) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.