The control tower at a major metropolitan airport can be a pretty chatty place.
Some of the chatter comes from air traffic controllers literally and phonetically spelling out the routes pilots need to follow to their destinations, using the foxtrot-lima-sierra-tango alphabet.
When a weather issue — say, a line of thunderstorms — pops up, routes have to be changed, often while the plane is already on the taxiway. So the controllers spell out new directions to the pilots, the pilots take them down and then carefully read back the instructions to the tower.
If the pilot mishears the instructions — well, the process begins again.
All of this can take several minutes, delaying departures, burning fuel and emitting carbon.
But now technology is coming to the rescue. The Federal Aviation Administration's new system, called Data Comm, lets traffic controllers and pilots exchange information electronically — still in the air-traffic lingo, but displaying like text messages.
One carrier already using the new system is delivery company UPS. In the cockpit of a Boeing 767, UPS pilot Capt. Gregg Kastman points to a screen near the center of the console. This is where he now receives "a lot of the messaging we used to have to receive via voice" over the radio, he says. That includes route clearance, route changes and frequency changes.
The Data Comm system "allows us to view the message, and reprogram our computers in seconds, which used to take minutes to process," he says. And that difference of a few minutes, he adds, "is tremendously important."
Imagine inclement weather moving in on a busy airport. Some 30 or 40 airplanes may be there waiting for takeoff, needing new routing instructions, Kastman says: "A couple minutes multiplied by 40 aircraft can easily lead to well over an hour in delays."
For a cargo company managing an intricate schedule of arriving and departing flights, coordinated also with ground transportation, such delays can be a major headache.
For customers, a delay may mean the shoes you ordered don't arrive in time or an important replacement part doesn't get delivered. For passengers, it could mean a missed connection.
FAA Assistant Administrator Jim Eck says passengers should notice a difference from the new technology.
Data Comm is intended "to make the whole system feel more stable and more predictable," he says, "so there isn't a lot of time spent sitting in an airplane wondering what's going on, and when am I going to get off."
The Data Comm system — part of the FAA's Next Gen program to modernize the nation's air traffic control system — is already up and working at most of the major airports, for now with the exception of Chicago's O'Hare. The $740 million upgrade is expected to be in service at more than 50 towers by year's end.
The FAA says all the major airlines have signed on; eight U.S. passenger and cargo airlines have added or are currently adding the system.
KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
And it's time for...
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Foreign language spoken).
MCEVERS: ...All Tech Considered.
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MCEVERS: This week we look at two ways that it is becoming easier to communicate thanks to better technology. We're going to start in the air. Text messages are about to become a way for air traffic controllers to communicate with aircraft pilots. NPR's Brian Naylor explains.
BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: The control tower at a major metropolitan airport can be a pretty chatty place.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Monitor tower, now - 134.14.
NAYLOR: We're here at the tower at Dulles International Airport outside Washington. Some of that chatter comes from air traffic controllers literally and phonetically spelling out the routes pilots need to follow to their destinations.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Jet 134, Foxtrot Lima Mike direct Sierra Tango Lima.
NAYLOR: When a weather issue - say, a line of thunderstorms - pops up, routes have to be changed often while the plane is already on the taxiway. What's more, the pilots have to carefully read back the instructions they get to the tower.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Jet 134 Stewie (ph), direct delayed. Jet 143...
NAYLOR: And if the pilot mishears the instructions, well, they have to go through the process again.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Direct Sierra Lima November.
NAYLOR: All of this can take several minutes, delaying departures, burning fuel and emitting carbon. But now technology is coming to the rescue. A new system that the Federal Aviation Administration calls Data Comm is enabling traffic controllers and pilots to exchange information electronically in a kind of texting system.
In the cockpit of a Boeing 767, UPS Pilot Gregg Kastman points to a screen near the center of the console.
GREGG KASTMAN: We are able to process our route clearances, route changes, frequency changes. A lot of the messaging that we normally would have to receive via voice on a radio frequency as we're taxiing to the runway - we're now able to get that in a text-message-like format. It allows us to view the message, reprogram our computers in seconds, which used to take minutes to process.
NAYLOR: Now, to me, the difference between minutes and seconds doesn't seem that dramatic.
KASTMAN: It's tremendously important to me. When a weather event affects a busy airport like here at Dulles, there may be 30, 40 airplanes that are all waiting in line. And a couple minutes multiplied times 40 aircraft can easily get well over an hour in delays.
NAYLOR: Delays that could mean those shoes you ordered don't arrive in time or, if you're a passenger, you miss your connection. Assistant FAA Administrator Jim Eck says passengers should notice a difference.
JIM ECK: The intent is to make the whole system feel more stable and more predictable so there isn't a lot of time spent sitting in an airplane wondering what's going on and when am I going to get off and having the aircrew come back and tell you that air traffic is holding us now because of weather.
NAYLOR: The Data Comm system is already up and working at most of the major airports except Chicago's O'Hare. It should be in service at more than 50 towers by year's end at a cost of some $740 million. Eight U.S. passenger and cargo airlines have or are adding the system. It's part of the FAA's NextGen program which aims to modernize the nation's air traffic control system. Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.