DataComm: An Upgrade From Voice Communication to a Textual Mode of Messaging.
Thursday, July 26, 2012

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the next in a series where we spotlight each of the safety and technology programs in which NATCA is participating collaboratively with the FAA.

PROGRAM NAME: Data Communications


Chad Geyer (Los Angeles Center);

Dean Harrison (Chicago Center); Colby Butchereit (Salt Lake Center)


HOW DATA COMM WORKS: DataComm uses a VHF frequency to send text type messages back and forth from ATC facilities to the flight deck through a service provider to FANS1/A+ (Future Air Navigation Services) equipped aircraft. A majority of these messages will be integrated into the flight deck avionics to help save time and remove issues of incorrect data entry.

Data Comm will be split up into three categories:

  •  The first category referred to as Segment 1 Phase 1 is the Tower Departure Clearance (DCL) service. This will connect the tower to the flight deck to send initial and revised clearances without the need for voice, and load these clearances into the FMS (Flight Management System) for pilot review and acknowledgement. Think of it as PDC (Pre-Departure Clearance) that connects to the fight deck and allows the controller to send revisions.  
  • The second category is referred to as Segment 1 Phase 2. This phase is the initial services and infrastructure for En Route. This phase will consist of transfer of communications, initial check-in, altitudes and altimeter settings, and airborne reroutes/go button. After initial services are rolled out, additional services will roll out as completed and technology allows.  These services include controller initiated routes, direct-to-fix, crossing restrictions, advisory messages, speeds and headings, beacon codes, stuck microphone, and tailored arrivals.  
  • The third category is Segment 2 Phase 1 and consists of 4D trajectories and D-Taxi.

Currently no facilities use Data Comm. The program office is preparing trials at three facilities (Memphis Tower [MEM], Newark Tower [EWR], Atlanta Tower [ATL]) for tower services. The first rollout is slated for November 2012 at MEM with EWR beginning around April 2013 and ATL around July 2013. Thales has created the Data Comm Trials Automation Platform (DTAP) to enhance PDC services. The three trial facilities will use PDC and DCL next to each other to test how the system works and help to determine any changes that would be required in a production system being developed by IFCET in Oklahoma City. The production system is scheduled to begin deployment to 41 initial sites beginning in early 2016. Segment 1 Phase 2 is scheduled for a 2018/19 initial deployment with Segment 2 Phase 1 schedule for 2025.

INSIGHT ON THE PROGRAM: Tower controllers are looking forward to using Data Comm to send revised clearances to the flight deck. This should save the controllers several minutes for each clearance and should, during SWAP (Severe Weather Avoidance Plan) season, alleviate ground congestion and workload. When En Route Services are delivered, controllers should see the greatest benefits from the transfer of control/initial check-in service and airborne reroutes/go button. Data Comm will also be the backbone of future services and enhancements that require large amounts of data to be shuffled between the controller and the flight deck.

RECENT DEVELOPMENTS: Data Comm Segment 1, Phase 1 – Sandra Anderson, Manager Air/Ground Solution Development Group, AJW-925, presented the briefing and requested that the JRC approve the final investment decision (FID) for Data Comm to implement DCL service to accommodate FANS aircraft (Segment 1Phase1 (S1P1)). Approval of this final investment decision will be the first phase of the transition from the legacy analog voice system to digital communications. Ms. Anderson also requested that the JRC endorse moving forward with the second phase of this investment, the development of En Route services (Segment 1 Phase 2 (S1P2)). The requested acquisition program cost and schedule baselines are $741.5M in F&E funding and $54.7M in Operations funding, spanning from FY2011 to FY2019.

Ms. Anderson had previously presented the request for an FID for Data Comm S1P1at the May 16, 2012 JRC meeting. At the meeting the JRC raised concerns about the cost and benefit of deploying the system at all 57 airport sites as proposed by the program. The JRC deferred making a decision and directed the program to report back to them the number of cost-beneficial airport locations and the amount of F&E and Ops funding needed to deploy and operate the systems at all 57 sites. Ms. Anderson presented the information that showed that 86 percent of the benefits were are from 15 airport locations and the rest are from an additional 20 airports; therefore a total of 35 locations had a position return on investment (ROI). The program also proposed adding six more locations based on user and/or operational considerations, bringing the total number of deployment sites to 41.

The request for approval of the FID also included the following:

  • Award of the Data Comm Integrated Services (DCIS) contract
  • Award of the ERAM contract modification supporting DCL service
  • Approval of the initial 35 sites with positive NPV + 6 sites other considerations equaling 41 total
  • Conditional approval of the remaining sites with the program returning to the JRC in FY13 with updated cost and operational data

RECENT DECISIONS: The JRC approved the FID for the Data Comm Segment 1, Phase 1 program to implement Departure Clearance (DCL) service to accommodate FANS aircraft (S1P1). This covers the additional items listed above with the clarification that the conditional approval covers the total number of 57 sites. The JRC approved acquisition program baseline as follows: $741.5M in F&E and $54.7M in Ops funding spanning from fiscal year 2011 to fiscal year 2019.

The JRC agreed to endorse moving forward with development of En Route services (S1P2). The JRC also approved the request to make the ATO chief operating officer the in-service decision authority for this program.

ACTION ITEMS: The Data Comm program will return to the JRC in fiscal year 2013 to provide updated cost and operational data in order to support a request to the JRC to lift the conditional approval of the FID on Segment 1 Phase 1 of the program.