Quick and accurate delivery of departure clearance instructions through Data Communications (Data Comm) takes place at 62 airports across the country. Air traffic controllers can send these text-like instructions with route information to pilots flying equipped aircraft under instrument flight rules instead of speaking over the radio. Air carrier dispatchers simultaneously receive the same information, giving all decision makers a shared awareness for faster reaction and approval of changes. Flight crews review the instructions and signal acceptance by pushing a button, and the instructions are loaded into the aircraft's flight-management system. If the route changes, this process can be repeated as often as necessary until takeoff. When Data Comm expands into en route airspace, airborne reroutes and other messages will be possible.
The FAA completed Data Comm deployment to 55 airports as part of the commitment for the program's Segment 1, Phase 1 baseline in December 2016, exceeding the objective by almost 2.5 years. With the accelerated deployment, Data Comm tower services realized benefits earlier than anticipated. Program cost savings were used to deliver the capability to seven additional towers, which were chosen based on a collaborative discussion with all affected stakeholders. Buffalo, Charleston, Columbus, Fort Myers, Joint Base Andrews, Reno-Tahoe, and Van Nuys are all operating as of August 2018. These towers were originally set to receive this service by September 2019.
Data Comm takes advantage of existing FAA infrastructure composed of the En Route Automation Modernization (ERAM) platform, Data Communications Network Services air-to-ground network, FAA Telecommunications Infrastructure ground-to-ground network, and Tower Data Link Service tower automation.
The other side of the Data Comm success equation and maximizing benefits is a growing number and variety of aircraft capable of using it. Participation is voluntary, but for operators to realize operational benefits, they must equip their aircraft with Future Air Navigation System avionics and VHF Digital Link radios to transmit messages. Through an FAA incentive and industry investment, more than 5,800 aircraft have Data Comm avionics, exceeding the goal of 1,900 domestic air carrier aircraft equipped by 2019. Thirteen U.S. airlines, 48 international airlines, 43 business jet operators, and the Department of Defense have equipped at least a portion of their fleets and are using Data Comm in the National Airspace System (NAS).
Pilots can easily read and accept departure clearance instructions with Data Comm's tower services.
Data Comm is a NextGen Advisory Committee (NAC) focus area, and the NAC's Joint Analysis Team (JAT) with the FAA and industry determined that across two months of data gathered at four sample sites, Data Comm on average resulted in taxi-out time savings between 0.2 and 8.5 minutes per rerouted flight. Savings occurred when airlines attempted to recover from schedule delays. Individual airline analyses are similar to JAT results over larger sets of data. Pilots have reported the system working so well that they have been able to continue taxiing to the runway without stopping. During severe weather, some aircraft have saved more than 90 minutes of delay time. With the service, aircraft can avoid being stuck and missing their departure windows.
As of December 2018, more than 50,000 Data Comm operations were conducted per week. This continues to grow as more aircraft become equipped. The portion of departures using Data Comm, averaged across all equipped airports, is 33 percent.
When plans change, pilots can accept route revisions as many times as necessary before takeoff.
Data Comm enhances safety by reducing communication errors and radio frequency congestion, improving capacity, and increasing efficiency. That decreases air traffic controller workload, saves time and fuel, and lowers aircraft engine emissions. 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.
Tower services are transitioning to operations and life cycle management, and will continue to receive software updates and increased capabilities. One new capability, first used at Dallas-Fort Worth, enables controllers to use Data Comm from multiple stations in the tower.
With tower services in place, the next steps build on the work of integrating multiple systems. Next up is implementing initial en route services. These services include messages — such as the transfer of communications from one en route center to the next — which reduce the amount of radio chatter and preserve bandwidth for more important needs. The most anticipated benefit is reroutes, because time and fuel savings, along with reduced emissions, are magnified at cruising speed. Rerouting also increases efficiency for controllers tracking multiple aircraft in their sector, and for traffic managers at the Command Center overseeing the NAS. A common reason for changing a route would be to avoid thunderstorms.
Data Comm during flight expands the types of messages that can be exchanged and increases benefits.
Preparing for initial en route services involves much of the same work involved with tower services. ERAM software needs to function properly at en route centers, airlines must prepare to use it, and the air-to-ground network has to send signals to the aircraft. Operators and controllers participated in flight trials at the Kansas City En Route Center in 2015, and the Data Comm team evaluated operations with controllers and technicians in 2016 and 2017. Testing and evaluation of the system by controllers, technicians, and pilots is continuing with the assistance of the FAA William J. Hughes Technical Center in Atlantic City, NJ; FAA Mike Monroney Aeronautical Center in Oklahoma City, OK; Kansas City Center; and Harris Corp.'s air/ground communication test bed facility in Melbourne, FL. Initial en route services are scheduled to be in place across the country by 2020.
The program's third phase, full en route services, is scheduled to begin in 2022. It will enable more possibilities, such as advisory messages and controller-initiated routes. These services are expected to be ready at the 20 centers by 2023.
After full en route services are deployed, the plan is to implement additional phases of capabilities to support future NextGen concepts. As more Data Comm services become operational, and the controllers and pilots become more familiar with how to best use this tool, more ideas may arise that add value. The FAA intends to continue to evaluate the capability, review user feedback, and improve the system to reach its fullest potential.