FAA to Replace Voice Communication with Text Between Air Traffic Controllers and Pilots

June 29, 2016
Data Comm enables air traffic controllers to communicate with the flight crew using digital messages, rather than the traditional voice communications. Or, how the FAA puts it in a news release, it's "like texting versus talking over the phone."

Air traffic control towers across the country are undergoing improvements, with new technology slowly replacing the traditional. Like the push from paper tracking to electronic or, now, the voice communication to digital information exchange.  

The Federal Aviation Administration's (FAA) program Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen) is establishing a technology called Data Comm, which will begin being installed in all air traffic control facilities that manage high altitude traffic in 2019.  

In the most basic sense, Data Comm enables air traffic controllers to communicate with the flight crew using digital messages, rather than the traditional voice communications. Or, how the FAA puts it in a news release, it's "like texting versus talking over the phone."  

Los Angeles International Airport is using the new technology, which started deploying in air traffic control towers in 2015. By the end of 2016, more than 50 towers will be using Data Comm, according to a FAA news release.  

In the standard voice communication there can be "talk back, read back" errors which lead to miscommunication, according to the FAA. The Data Comm solution would allow for more clear instructions, advisories, requests, reports and clearances.  

Perhaps the most notable miscommunication between pilot and air traffic control towers (although there were several other factors involved) was the Tenerife Airport Disaster, the deadliest collision in aviation history, in which a KLM flight took off without clearance and crashed into another Boeing 747 taxiing down the runway.   

With the new technology seeming to take over, there has been some push back. For example, two newly built airport towers in San Francisco and Las Vegas that were designed exclusively for electronic tracking have to be remodeled to also accommodate the traditional paper tracking. According to what the President of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association Paul Rinaldi told pgys.org, the electronic strip system for tracking is too unstable. Rinaldi believes controllers need to be able to transition quickly back to the traditional paper tracking method, something the new towers didn't have room for.