Collage of Data Comm photography


Data Comm supplements voice communication between controllers and pilots with digital text-based messages.

The first airport received tower departure clearance services in August 2015 — eight months ahead of schedule.

The FAA is working to meet the challenge dates that would bring services to towers at 56 airports by the end of 2016.

Initial en route Data Comm services are scheduled to begin in 2019.

Pilots and air traffic controllers are exchanging information in a whole new way with Data Communications (Data Comm). Leveraging equipment already available in many aircraft, they are sending and receiving flight instructions using digital text-based messages. In the years ahead, pilots and controllers will be able to exchange a variety of other instructions, requests, and reports instead of speaking them over the radio.

At airport towers where Data Comm is in place, controllers can enter flight departure clearance instructions into a computer and push a button to electronically send the information to the flight deck. Flight crews view it, press a button to confirm receipt, and press another button to enter the instructions into the flight management system before leaving and during taxi to the runway.

Data Comm is considered important enough by the NextGen Advisory Committee (NAC), a federal advisory committee composed of aviation stakeholders, that it became one of the NAC's four high-priority, high-readiness operational capabilities in 2014. This air-to-ground data link opens up NextGen to new capabilities and benefits now and into the future.

Data Comm Today

Data Comm: NextGen is Working for United Airlines (1:06)

Bryan Quigley, managing director of flight operations for United Airlines, describes how Data Comm is improving operational efficiency.

Data Comm service is operational at the following airport towers:

  • Albuquerque
  • Atlanta
  • Austin
  • Baltimore
  • Boston
  • Burbank
  • Charlotte
  • Cleveland
  • Denver
  • Detroit
  • Fort Lauderdale
  • Houston Bush
  • Houston Hobby
  • Indianapolis
  • Las Vegas
  • Los Angeles
  • Louisville
  • Memphis
  • Miami
  • Nashville
  • Newark
  • New Orleans
  • New York John F. Kennedy
  • New York LaGuardia
  • Oakland
  • Ontario
  • Orlando
  • Philadelphia
  • Phoenix
  • Pittsburgh
  • Portland
  • Sacramento
  • Salt Lake City
  • San Antonio
  • San Diego
  • San Francisco
  • San Jose
  • Santa Ana
  • Seattle
  • Tampa
  • Teterboro
  • Washington Dulles
  • Washington Reagan
  • Westchester County
  • Windsor Locks (Bradley)

In October 2014, the FAA made the final investment decision, and defined the scope, cost, and schedule for initial en route services.

Prototype Data Comm equipment provided tower departure clearances during trials at Memphis and Newark, which ended in January 2016. At Newark, a number of airlines participated in the Data Comm trials, including UPS, FedEx, United Airlines, Scandinavian Airlines, and British Airways. Between 60 and 80 flights per day used Data Comm at Memphis and Newark, enabling the FAA to gather operational information to improve the final system, which is in use today.

Data Comm Tower Sites

Map of the United States showing at which of 56 airports Data Comm is operational, and at which of 56 airports Data Comm is planned.

Benefits of Data Comm

Data Comm is a benefits-driven program, and the FAA is collaborating with industry to ensure its success. Data Comm offers many advantages to operators and controllers. In economic benefits alone, Data Comm is expected to save operators more than $10 billion over the 30-year life cycle of the program and the FAA about $1 billion in future operating costs.

Time savings is another major benefit. For instance, when pilots read back a series of complicated waypoints in a clearance with even one mistake, they must repeat the instructions until they are correct. A departure clearance using voice communications can take two to three times longer than a departure clearance via Data Comm and becomes even slower as traffic gets busier. At some airports, the process of providing navigation instructions can occur multiple times before takeoff. With Data Comm, each transmission can be quickly sent and received electronically to help avoid delays.

Operators of equipped aircraft sharing the departure queue with non-equipped aircraft at Memphis and Newark noticed the advantage. The time saved by receiving digital clearances instead of voice instructions can make the difference between getting airborne before a thunderstorm closes the departure corridor and being stuck on the ground waiting for the storm to pass.

Air carrier coming toward the camera with a tower in the background.

Data Comm will initially deliver digital departure clearance services at 56 airports before the service extends to en route airspace.

Another advantage is enhanced safety. Unlike with radio, controllers can use Data Comm to send a complicated message to a single airplane to eliminate any confusion as to the intended recipient. This can be particularly helpful when flight numbers sound similar. A controller always decides whether a message is going to be sent, and the route will not load into the avionics system without the crew first reading and responding to it. This ensures the flight crew receives and acts on the correct message, and virtually eliminates the chance of the flight crew misunderstanding it.

Data Comm also provides added resiliency during unexpected events. Voice communication technology can fail because of a malfunctioning radio or broken infrastructure, which would cause a ground stop. Data Comm gives an alternate and eventually predominant way to relay messages between pilots and controllers to keep traffic moving.

In addition to these benefits, Data Comm leads to improved use of airspace and aircraft, more efficient routing with fewer speed and altitude adjustments, and increased air traffic capacity. These changes contribute to reduced fuel consumption and aircraft exhaust emissions, and will enable the National Airspace System (NAS) to meet future traffic demand.

Initial Data Comm capabilities take advantage of available Future Air Navigation System (FANS) avionics. This system has been used for years to enable controller-pilot communication in oceanic airspace. As a result, airlines can see benefits using equipment already installed on their aircraft.

Data Comm Ahead

Assisted by Harris Corp., the company contracted to provide Data Comm integration and engineering services, the FAA's baseline schedule shows this work will be completed by the end of 2019. However, the FAA is striving to meet challenge dates that would bring services to all 56 locations by the end of 2016.

Initial en route services in the second phase of Data Comm are scheduled to become operational starting in 2019. En route Data Comm will link aircraft in flight with the 20 en route centers across the continental United States. The program completed the requirements and design definition phase, and is developing software that will bring significant new capabilities to the En Route Automation Modernization system.

En route controllers speak with as many as 25 flight crews at a time in their sector on busy days. In the future, Data Comm will enable controllers to quickly send new navigation instructions to multiple aircraft and flight crews to redirect aircraft around thunderstorms or other hazards, and inform air carrier flight dispatchers of these changes at the same time. Controllers also will use Data Comm to communicate new altitude and altimeter settings, inform pilots about flying special routes, and manage intervals between aircraft.

NextGen's Next Big Thing: Data Comm (4:03)

In addition, Data Comm will be used for transition communications. About half of all radio calls now consist of pilots signing off with one controller and checking in with the next as an airplane leaves airspace controlled by one sector and enters the airspace of another. When digital messages take over this routine, radio voice communications will be greatly reduced.

Data Comm will be particularly helpful in congested airspace where the radio chatter is so intense that pilots have to listen carefully for their own call signs to hear messages that apply to them.

Equipping with Data Comm

In addition to an operational ground infrastructure, aircraft will have to be equipped in order for Data Comm benefits to be realized. The FAA is working with the airline industry to encourage additional Data Comm equipage. Under this initiative, eight airlines have signed agreements to equip aircraft with Data Comm-capable avionics, and these equipped aircraft are starting to appear in the NAS.

The goal is to equip 1,900 airplanes by 2019. As of July 13, 2016, 867 aircraft have equipped under the incentive program. Another 820 are equipped outside of the incentive, meaning 1,687 aircraft in the NAS can now send and receive messages via Data Comm.

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