Pilot text messages are saving you from flight delays

Using a new text-based communication technology called Data Comm, the FAA is helping speed up departures across the country.

Ben Fox Rubin Former senior reporter
Ben Fox Rubin was a senior reporter for CNET News in Manhattan, reporting on Amazon, e-commerce and mobile payments. He previously worked as a reporter for The Wall Street Journal and got his start at newspapers in New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts.
Ben Fox Rubin
5 min read
Tyler Lizenby/CNET

"Here is my new routing, from Newark to Newel, J60 to PSB, Q71 to GEFFS to HVQ," Capt. Gregg Kastman calmly rattles off, pointing at a monochrome computer screen to his left displaying rows of glowing green numbers and letters indecipherable to mere civilians.

Through the cockpit windows in front of us, we could look out at the seemingly infinite airport apron of Louisville International below an expansive bright blue sky. Inside, amid the gentle rumble of avionics cooling fans, we are surrounded by hundreds of switches, hydraulic controls and electrical panels that can be summoned to lift this 284,000-pound MD-11 into the air. But it's that green screen on Kastman's navigation computer that holds our attention.

"All of that just got updated automatically with one button push. I didn't have to type in every point like I would normally," he continues, as he manages to reroute his plane with a few taps at the computer.


Kastman in the cockpit of an MD-11.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Kastman, a soft-spoken, bespectacled pilot for UPS Inc., is walking me through a demo of Data Comm, a new way for pilots and air traffic controllers to communicate ahead of departures. The technology, which works a lot like text messaging, is helping replace the slow and error-prone process of relaying messages via scratchy radio calls crammed with the NATO phonetic alphabet ("...direct romeo-lima-golf, direct sierra-november-yankee…").

Data Comm, a part of the Federal Aviation Administration's "NextGen" program to modernize its operations, should ensure that shippers like UPS and FedEx deliver your packages with fewer delays. Even better, the 27,000 Data Comm-enabled flights per week in the US are already speeding up takeoffs for passenger planes, cutting down on that irritating time-suck of waiting for your plane to leave the gate, then taxiing and waiting and taxiing and waiting to reach the runway.

"The trick with these tools is a human being might not see something directly over time, but they might wake up one day and say, 'You know what, I'm not getting delayed as much as I used to before,'" said Jesse Wijntjes, the FAA's Data Comm program manager.

Texting in the sky

Using the current system without Data Comm, radio calls between controllers and pilots can take up valuable time, with a pilot writing the controller's message on a slip of paper, then reading back the information to ensure there are no mistakes. When necessary, a pilot then has to carefully punch the newly received routing information into his navigation computer. It's an ironically unsophisticated system used to direct tech-stuffed planes worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

This traditional system works just fine when there are no curveballs. But when planes need to get rerouted because of bad weather, delays can easily pile up as controllers call each departing pilot with new instructions.

Data Comm, officially called Controller-Pilot Data Link Communications, cuts out a lot of that process by just sending routing and departure information via text messages straight to a pilot's navigation computer. Once an electronic message with new routing information is received, Kastman showed me, he can update his flight in a matter of seconds by pressing a few buttons on the navigation computer. No need to make lengthy calls or punch in new routing information.

Controllers are also able to send out Data Comm messages to multiple planes simultaneously, instead of having to make radio calls one by one over congested radio frequencies. These benefits can cut down the time for rerouting a line of planes, from 20 to 40 minutes to just 2 to 3 minutes, Wijntjes said.

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"We really have a tight network that has to be on time," said Kastman, whose company was an early adopter of the new system. "I don't have to do as much writing down, communicating back. It frees up time for me so I can do other stuff."

Thanks to Amazon Prime, e-commerce customers now expect their stuff to arrive faster than ever. But when something doesn't show up on time, customers typically blame their online retailer, not shipping companies, said Laura Behrens Wu, founder and CEO of Shippo, which makes shipping software for e-commerce companies. Her firm isn't involved in Data Comm's development.

"Anything that can help minimize delays and help with delivery times is critical for e-commerce," she said, adding that a technology like Data Comm should allow online sellers to get more repeat customers.

For now Data Comm is used only in domestic airspace for departures at 55 major airports, out of over 5,000 public airports in the US. Seven more towers are being added through next summer. By 2019, Data Comm capabilities will be used in-flight, which should allow for improved routing around weather, boosting safety and hopefully cutting down on turbulence during flights.

The need for radio

Considering all its benefits, which include reducing jet-fuel burn while waiting in line, you might be wondering why it took so long to roll out something like Data Comm. After all, text messaging has been around since the early '90s and the same technology powering Data Comm has been used for flights over oceans for the past 15 years.

Much of the answer has to do with the cost and complexity of aerospace infrastructure. The massive expense of replacing the FAA's decades-old mainframes, which couldn't support the new technology, was a major hurdle. Plus, it can cost anywhere from $10,000 to $150,000 to modify domestic planes to use the new system.

Since Data Comm is a voluntary program, carriers and private jets aren't required to foot that expense, though 12 US domestic airlines, 34 international carriers and hundreds of business jet operators have already decided to. So far, about 40 percent of the roughly 7,800 flights in national airspace use Data Comm, Wijntjes said.

Enlarge Image

Inside the MD-11.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

I ask Kastman whether he sees a future when all communications -- takeoff, in-flight and landing -- will be handled by the new system. Despite his four years of involvement in the technology's development, he's adamant that Data Comm could never replace radio calls entirely.

"In, say, a five-hour flight, I would say it would be used for four hours," says Kastman. "But there will always need to be the ability for timely voice communication. Whenever we're getting clearance to land, those things are so timely that even a 10 second delay to send a text message could affect the safety of the flight."

That means, he adds, that controllers and some version of those scratchy calls will always be needed, regardless of whatever new communication technologies come along.

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