ATM Modernization, Commercial, Embedded Avionics

FAA to Expand Data Comm Beyond Memphis, Newark in 2016

By Woodrow Bellamy III  | May 28, 2015
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[Avionics Today 05-28-2015] By the end of 2016, the FAA plans to expand the deployment of its Data Communications (Data Comm) system to more than 50 Air Traffic Control (ATC) towers throughout the National Airspace System (NAS). According to FAA Administrator Michael Huerta, that deployment plan is three years ahead of the agency's original NextGen schedule for Data Comm. 
The FAA plans to expand Data Comm to George Bush International Airport, pictured here, later this summer. Photo: Houston Airport System.
Data Comm provides a direct, digital text-based communication link between air traffic controllers and aircraft Flight Management Systems (FMS) to provide safety of flight clearances, instructions, traffic flow management, flight crew requests and reports. 
Over the last two years, United Airlines, UPS and FedEx have been performing trials using Data Comm at Newark Liberty International Airport and Memphis Airport to transmit approved sets of text messages about flight plans in place of traditional verbal communications. During a press conference at Newark Liberty International Airport last week, Huerta said the agency is now ready for rapid expansion from Newark and Memphis throughout the NAS. 
"Later this summer, it will expand to Houston and Salt Lake City. In 2016, we’re aiming to have Data Comm in more than 50 air traffic control towers — three years ahead of schedule," said Huerta. 
Essentially, Data Comm works through the tower by sending an approved text message through data link to an aircraft equipped with Future Air Navigation Systems (FANS) 1/A+ and VHF Datalink (VDL) Mode 2 avionics — such as FedEx's Boeing 767s and 777s — to alert the pilot. The operator's flight dispatch center receives a duplicate message containing the same routing information, and the pilot then accepts the command with inputs into the FMS.
The FAA's updated deployment schedule for Data Comm is the agency's latest major announcement surrounding progress with deployment of critical air traffic infrastructure that powers the overall air transportation system Communications, Navigation and Surveillance (CNS) improvements that are the heart of NextGen initiatives. In April, Huerta announced that the agency had completely replaced the legacy Host system to provide improved flight plan processing and allow controllers to track and display nearly double the number of high altitude flights than they were previously able. 
Huerta further explained the benefits in a post on the Department of Transportation's (DOT) Fastlane blog, comparing Data Comm to the process of pre-programming directions to an address within a car's GPS system, as opposed to calling a friend for verbal directions. 
"Let's say two planes are in line for takeoff when an incoming storm requires air traffic controllers to re-route them. The plane, using voice communications, has to pull out of the line so the pilot can manually input the new instructions, a process that can take up to 15 minutes. The plane then has to get in the back of the takeoff line, ultimately putting the flight 30 minutes behind schedule," said Huerta. "On the other hand, the plane using Data Comm has its new flight plan sent via text directly to the cockpit. The pilot accepts the updated instructions with the push of a button." 
Huerta is referring to Data Comm’s initial phase of the Departure Clearance (DCL) capability. The second phase of the Data Comm program will deploy Controller Pilot Data Link Communications (CPDLC) to en route air traffic control centers, giving controllers even more connection to the aircraft's flight deck with the digital transfer of communications, validation and assignment of altitudes, revised route information and issuance of altimeters. 

According to the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA), deployment of the CPDLC functionality in the en route environment will begin in the 2018-2019 time frame. 

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