Monday, December 26, 2016

New technology speeds pilot, air traffic controller communication

Captain Rey Angula, a United Airlines pilot, explains how the installation of Data Comm will speed communications between air traffic controllers and pilots by transmitting instructions digitally.

Air traffic controllers at O'Hare International Airport's tower are using a new technology, called Data Comm, that speeds up communication between air traffic controllers like Tim Kiefer and pilots.

It's clear skies at O'Hare International Airport, but there's a thunderstorm elsewhere in the Midwest.

As passengers blithely board their plane, air traffic control is on the radio with pilot Chuck Stewart.

"United 2145, we've got a new clearance for you," is the message.

"'Oh darn!'" Stewart says (or possibly something saltier).

That's because even a slight flight plan deviation can lead to lost time, spent fuel and a cranky cabin.

Relief is coming. As of this month, control towers at 56 U.S. airports will possess a new FAA "Data Comm" system that sends flight instructions digitally to waiting aircraft, reducing the worst kind of delays -- the ones when you're already embedded in the plane.

But while airports are ready, airlines are still installing the technology in jets. Between 15 and 20 percent nationwide are equipped and "numbers will continue to grow," FAA Data Communications Program Manager Jesse Wijntjes said at a recent event showcasing the system.

Here, about 10 percent of flights are outfitted with Data Comm at O'Hare International Airport, and nearly 35 percent are ready at Midway International Airport.

The switch-over will save time from the get-go as controllers can send departure instructions electronically instead of radioing information. It also eliminates time lags caused by reroutes.

Typically, pilots write down the changes manually, read the information back to controllers, enter it into flight management computers, then check with airline dispatchers. The process can stretch from 15 to 30 minutes. The snags snowball if multiple controllers are issuing reroutes over the radio to myriad pilots.

For passengers, the fallout ranges from a plane losing its place in the takeoff line to missing the chance to be airborne before storms ground flights.

"In the Data Comm world, (instructions are) sent to multiple airplanes at a time, as many times as needed. That is the real holy grail for the program," Wijntjes said.

Transmitting digital instructions also reduces the potential for human error at O'Hare where radio congestion is chronic, controller Dan Carrico said.

He recounted a conversation between a pilot and controller on a reroute necessitated by bad weather in Milwaukee.

The controller listed a number of "fixes" or points in the sky that the pilot needed to hit. The pilot read back the fixes but missed one to the north nicknamed "Toews."

The controller caught the mistake, but if it hadn't been rectified "the consequences could have been catastrophic. You would have had a loss of separation, which is when two airplanes get too close together," said Carrico, a National Air Traffic Controllers Association union representative.

For carriers, "there's a whole heck of a lot of time saved, and that's the bottom line for us," United Airlines' Stewart said.

He cited the example of two airplanes readying for takeoff at Newark International Airport. Before leaving, reroutes were required. The jet with Data Comm was climbing as the jet without lagged in limbo while pilots updated.

Data Comm is part of NextGen, an FAA modernization program that uses satellites to guide planes instead of radar.

Will every airplane apply it? Data Comm costs are anywhere from zero to $100,000 per jet, depending how old the plane is. Older models aren't expected to upgrade, nor are small, personal aircraft, although business jets are converting.

In 2017, the FAA plans to start equipping control centers that handle high-altitude flights with Data Comm.

Will it replace air traffic controllers?

"Radios are never going to go away," Stewart said.

"Often when you see efficiencies, safety will degrade," Carrico said. "In this case, safety is increased."

One more thing

Why name a fix Toews? The name refers to Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews and, yes, local controllers are big fans of the hockey team.

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