Data Comm console in cockpit (FAA)

NextGen expands digital communications between pilots, tower

A growing number  of airports have deployed the Data Comm capabilities developed under Federal Aviation Administration’s NextGen modernization effort that allow text-based supplemental communications system for aircraft pilots and control towers.  The deployments come, however, as the proposed White House budget looks to begin outsourcing federal air traffic control duties to a private entity as soon as fiscal year 2018. .

Data Comm, the developed under the agency's NextGen program, is up and running at five New York City airports and at Miami International Airport, bringing the total number of installations to 55, according to the FAA’s March 16 statement.

The new technology supplements radio voice communication, enabling controllers and pilots to transmit important information such as clearances, revised flight plans and advisories with the touch of a button. The text transmission reduces radio frequency congestion and read-back errors between pilot and controllers, saving an average of 13 minutes per flight in New York during times of heavy traffic congestion, the FAA said.

The FAA's announcements came just before the White House released its fiscal 2018 budget proposal that If approved by Congress, those funding plans would kick off a multi-year effort to shift the agency's air traffic control  function to an independent, non-governmental organization.

According to the White House's budget statement, the move would make the air traffic control system more efficient and technologically innovative.

The move was anticipated by some in Congress as the budget was being prepared.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) and committee Vice Chairman and Ranking Member Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) said in a Feb. 28 letter to Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee Chairman Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) that such a shift to a private company could endanger progress made under the FAA's NextGen program.

The senators said the FAA's innovative, collaborative approach to NextGen is producing cost savings and improving air traffic flows in dynamic collaboration with the aviation industry. If air traffic control were separated from the FAA in the face of rapid technological advancements, they said, progress to implement the technology would be lost.

The airline industry association applauded the proposed move to outsource air traffic control as a means to bring more innovation and provide steadier funding, resulting in a quicker, more effective path for system modernization efforts. The association said it has consistently advocated putting the function under an independent, not-for-profit entity funded by system users. 

General aviation groups weren't happy with president's proposal, however.

In a March 16 statement, National Business Aviation Association President and CEO Ed Bolen "strongly" opposed the administration's budget, which he said endorses  air traffic control system privatization. The move, Bolen said, would adversely affect "countless small and mid-size communities across the U.S., which rely on general aviation."

This article was first posted to FCW, a sister site to GCN.

About the Author

Mark Rockwell is a senior staff writer at FCW, whose beat focuses on acquisition, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Energy.

Before joining FCW, Rockwell was Washington correspondent for Government Security News, where he covered all aspects of homeland security from IT to detection dogs and border security. Over the last 25 years in Washington as a reporter, editor and correspondent, he has covered an increasingly wide array of high-tech issues for publications like Communications Week, Internet Week, Fiber Optics News, magazine and Wireless Week.

Rockwell received a Jesse H. Neal Award for his work covering telecommunications issues, and is a graduate of James Madison University.

Click here for previous articles by Rockwell. Contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter at @MRockwell4.

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