Thursday, August 3, 2017

New technology helping planes take off on time




SEA-TAC AIRPORT, Wash. - It’s been a tiresome but necessary routine that pilots and air traffic controllers do everyday.

Just before a flight is allowed to take off, a clearance delivery air traffic controller (ATC) communicates with a pilot to confirm a flight plan verbally over the two way radio. Often for a long distance flights, that exchange of information can take 15 minutes or longer.

“And that’s time passengers are in the back just waiting,” said Alaska Airlines captain Bret Peyton. “That's 10 or 15 minutes I know I have to either be airborne or multi-tasking doing some of my other work.”

But, there’s some hope that all sides appear to approve of.

In 2016, airports and airlines around the country began installing Data Comm, a data communications link that acts like a text message system between the flight deck of an aircraft and flight controllers in an airport tower.

With a push of a button, controllers can deliver the same flight navigational information to the aircraft in a matter of seconds where it used to take minutes by radio.

Heidi Gilbert has been a flight controller at Sea-Tac Airport for 17 years and said it’s become a big time saver.

“It’s more efficient to get in an electronic copy of something as opposed to reading it, having to write it down,” said Gilbert. “We don’t have to worry about foreign accents or reading our own writing.”

It’s been a big time saver for Peyton when he flies an aircraft equipped with Data Comm.

Sometimes during weather events, the flight plan approved by the FAA is revised often. Those revisions appear on a special screen inside the flight deck that Peyton relays into the plane’s computer system without having to talk to a controller.




“On those long flights, those exchanges can be a real bear,” said Peyton.

That's because pilots are required to repeat all the flight instructions over the radio back to the flight controller. With Data Comm, those communications have been almost eliminated.

Data Comm is now operational in 55 of the country’s airports and 45 percent of commercial aircraft currently flying. The high altitude ATC’s around the country will be equipped with Data Comm by 2019.

Despite the apparent effectiveness for all involved, the FAA has made the system a voluntary install with the hope that airlines will see the savings it can bring.

“The savings on delays , the fuel burn and a more efficient operation for them in terms of predictability, pays for the cost of the investment on the aircraft,” said Jesse Wijntjes, Data Comm project manager for the FAA.

Out out of four planes coming and going from Sea-Tac Airport are equipped with Data Comm. Sometimes during departure rush hours or following weather delays, controllers will move planes equipped with Data Comm to a head of the line of planes waiting to take off.

“Those aircraft are going to move,” said Wijntjes. “So they get off the surface faster and that helps everybody else who was in line move a little bit faster.”

Peyton hopes he’ll always be assigned an aircraft with Data Comm.

“Sometimes it is kind of hard to see someone depart ahead of you because you don't have this new technology," he said.

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