FAA launches Free Flight tool

Some American Airlines Inc. pilots and air traffic controllers can now relay "Roger" and other aviation lingo at the push of a button thanks to a Free Flight tool.

The world's first Controller-Pilot Data Link Communications (CPDLC) went operational at the Federal Aviation Administration's Miami enroute center Oct. 7. CPDLC replaces the current system of two-way voice radio with faster, more reliable text messaging for non-urgent exchanges.

The FAA anticipates that CPDLC, once used by more airlines and deployed nationwide, will help relieve frequency congestion. Agency officials hope to expand the program to the rest of the FAA's 20 domestic centers with upgrades by 2007, according to Martin Cole, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association's representative for data link.

"It's a very important step in the FAA's modernization," John Thornton, director of the agency's Free Flight program, said during a phone briefing Oct. 9.

Free Flight builds on the FAA's effort to implement new computer and display systems, making it possible to introduce software that assists controllers and ultimately retire the paper strips that have been the primary way of marking aircraft movement.

It not only automates basic operations, but also supports an innovative approach to air traffic control. Rather than forcing aircraft to fly along predetermined routes, Free Flight allows pilots to choose the most efficient paths, speeds and altitudes, depending on the prevailing conditions.

CPDLC is part of that vision. "I look at this like the beginning of e-mail," Thornton said, describing the Miami site as a learning lab.

Current CPDLC provide four services:

* Transfer of communications: Controllers switch aircraft to different frequency.

* Initial contact: Pilots check in on new frequency.

* Altimeter settings: Controllers uplink settings.

* Menu text: Controllers and pilots swap preformatted text messages.

Down the road, the FAA will add five more capabilities — for altitude, heading and speed assignments, route clearance and pilot-initiated downlink, Cole said.

"We've been working a long time to get to this day," he added.

The $48 million Miami program was made by possible through a partnership among the FAA, American Airlines, Rockwell Collins Inc., ARINC Inc. and Computer Sciences Corp.

"I think the key was getting a specific agreement with an airline," he said. "That's what gave us the ability to move forward."

American Airlines has outfitted 10 757s and is working on four 767s, said Tara Baten, a spokeswoman for the airline.

"American has supported the computer data link concept between controllers and pilots for many years," Baten said.

The equipment for new, modern airplanes costs about $18,000 to $25,000; for retrofitting older jets, the cost is about $100,000.

The Air Force will begin using the system in December, Delta Air Lines in January and FedEx sometime in 2003, Thornton said. Continental Airlines Inc. is in talks with the FAA, he said.

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