Text to Land: Air Traffic Control is Shifting to Text Messaging

I am often fascinated by the behind-the-scenes in aviation and flight operations. As a kid, I would tune in to Channel 9 on United flights, where you could hear the communications between pilots and air traffic control (ATC).

Pope Field Air Traffic Control Tower. Photo by Albert Herring, used with permission.

Pope Field Air Traffic Control Tower. Photo by Albert Herring, used with permission.

Well, that might all be changing soon. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is implementing text-based communications, which many airport will be using by the end of the year. The new system, called Data Comm, will help reduce delays and save on fuel costs, according to the FAA. Under Data Comm, ATC can enter instructions into the computer, which will then pop up on screens in front of all the pilots that need the information.

A practical example is re-routing flights during severe weather. Currently, controllers would have to contact each plane individually to re-route them. This process can take up to half an hour, if enough planes are waiting to get instructions. With the new system, all information can be relayed immediately to all planes involved.

Washington-Dulles is already using this new system on 10 – 20% of departures, and the feedback has apparently been overwhelmingly positive. Delta spoke to ABC News, and estimate that the new system will help them save 1 minute between taxi and takeoff. This might sound trivial, but with the number of flights Delta has, this amounts to $20 million in savings per year!

Washington Dulles Airport ATC in the background. Photo by Joe Ravi, used with permission.

Washington Dulles Airport ATC in the background. Photo by Joe Ravi, used with permission.

I am all for anything that can have a positive impact in aviation, but I must admit I was worried about typos. Fortunately, FAA said that the system will have mechanisms in place to prevent errors like that. Perhaps it’s not unlike the spelling alphabets (e.g. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot) the FAA currently uses.

8 US airlines and 17 international airlines are already onboard with the system. For those curious, here is a list of them (HT AIN Online):

  • US Airlines: UPS, FedEx, Southwest, American, Delta, Hawaiian, United and Virgin America
  • International: Air India, Air New Zealand, Air Tahiti, AirBridge Cargo, Austrian, British Airways, Cargolux, Emirates, Etihad, Korean, Qatar, Scandinavian, Singapore, Brussels, SwissAir, Royal Air Maroc, Japan Airlines

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