Improved communication between our pilots and ATC – without even talking

For decades, air traffic controllers have relied on a system that uses two-way radio to transmit instructions and route changes to planes waiting to take off. Pilots jot down these notes on paper, and then read the instructions back to the air traffic controllers.

If there’s a misunderstanding, the process must be repeated until it’s correct. Due to radio congestion at airports, this can take 10 to 15 minutes (sometimes longer) — all while passengers sit in the cabin waiting to begin their trip. It’s very old school.

Enter Data Comm. It’s improved technology that allows air traffic controllers to enter flight departure instructions into a computer and send that information electronically to the flight deck. Pilots confirm they got the information, and press a button to enter the instructions to the aircraft’s flight management system. That’s much more modern.

Alaska Airlines partnered with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to implement Data Comm, which is now being used at Sea-Tac International Airport. The upgraded technology is credited with enhancing safety and reducing flight delays at airports around the nation during departures.

“It’s a great leap forward,” said Capt. Bret Peyton, who’s leading the Data Comm upgrade for Alaska.

Data Comm allows pilots and air traffic controllers to communicate prior to takeoff using text messages instead of relying on radio voice communications, which can be time consuming, slow down operations and present a greater likelihood of miscommunication between flight crews and those in the tower.

Part of the FAA’s NextGen technology, Data Comm transmits and receives flight plans, preflight clearances, instructions, advisories and other essential messages using a screen on the flight deck. Incoming texts can be accepted with the touch of a button. Pilots can also use a drop-down menu to send a response. The process not only speeds up communications, it improves safety by reducing the odds of a read-back error while relaying information between pilots and air traffic controllers using a radio.

“We’ve seen some tremendous success with Data Comm. Instead of talking with the tower to get preflight clearances, we use the text-messaging system to quickly receive key information,” Peyton said. “It’s also a timesaver. Often at congested airports, our aircraft with Data Comm can skip ahead in line for takeoff and depart before other planes that don’t have it.”

On Alaska’s flights to and from Hawaii, Data Comm also provides air traffic controllers a far more exact level of aircraft position awareness over the Pacific than in the past.

Alaska currently has 85 Data Comm equipped Boeing 737s, with another 40 planes to receive the upgrade by early 2019. Virgin America, part of Alaska Air Group, has 12 of its Airbus aircraft outfitted with Data Comm. All new 737s and Airbus deliveries will have the system.

Radio voice communications is still used on Data Comm equipped planes, such as during landings. You can learn more about the FAA’s NextGen programs here.