What Data Communication Means to the National Airspace System03 February 2015

Aviation, Flight Operations

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is implementing numerous air traffic control projects and enhancements under the Next Generation (NextGen) initiative to improve the capacity, efficiency, flexibility and safety of the National Airspace System (NAS). The FAA’s Data Communications Program is one of the keys to achieving these necessary operational improvements and benefits.

The Data Communications Program will replace a significant portion of the voice communications between air traffic controllers and aircraft flight crews with more efficient and reliable digital data messaging communications.

The program will improve air traffic control efficiency, increase NAS capacity, and enhance air traffic safety by:

  • Enabling the digital transmission of complex airborne reroutes and advanced operations such as trajectory-based flights necessary for the full implementation of NextGen;
  • Providing a more efficient, automated means for routine flight crew and controller information exchange, thereby reducing controller and flight crew workloads, the associated congestion on the voice channels and the number of operational errors; and
  • Leveraging existing NAS capabilities and providing an enhanced communications infrastructure to support NextGen initiatives through the use of electronic data links between the ground and aircraft.

Specific examples of the ways the program will improve safety, efficiency, and capacity of the NAS include:

  • Reducing communication workload demands on radar controllers that currently take much of the controller’s attention.
  • Eliminating situations that produce confusion and errors arising from voice congestion and voice communication quality.
  • Implementing a coherent sector resource management concept for the sector team where air/ground communication workload can be shared within the sector.
  • Providing an alternate means for air/ground communication when voice communication is not available.
  • Quickly and accurately providing complex clearances containing multiple latitude/longitude-defined route elements and communicating complete departure clearances and revisions necessitated by future air traffic management initiatives.
  • Providing a way to efficiently communicate air traffic instructions such as altimeter settings and beacon codes.
  • Integrating air/ground communications with other parts of the NAS automation environment. Instructions to, and requests from, airspace users must currently be independently exchanged via voice air/ground communications and then manually updated in the automation systems, which leads to system errors and less efficient movement of aircraft through the airspace.
  • Automating many repetitive and time-consuming controller tasks as well as supporting the synchronization between on-board aircraft avionics, such as Flight Management Systems, with ground flight data processing systems. Lack of synchronization between airborne and ground-based air traffic control increases controller and flight crew workload, imposes additional communications requirements, and introduces the risk of operational errors and incidents.

Data communications have been used in oceanic and remote airspace for many years with a great deal of enthusiasm and success. This process is now being introduced into the domestic environment for all the reasons above.

Currently, initial departure clearances as well as reroutes are being delivered to aircraft on the ground on a trial basis at Memphis and Newark airports. This procedure will be upgraded to operational status at more than 50 airports in the near future. The capability to include the domestic en-route portion of the Data Communications Program will be implemented over the next several years.

For more information on Data Communications and our involvement in the support of this effort, contact North Star Group.

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