Pilots, controllers get the message

Some pilots and air traffic controllers can now relay "Roger" and other aviation lingo at the push of a button, thanks to a new tool that brings the aerospace community one step closer to realizing the benefits of Free Flight, a revolutionary approach to air traffic management.

The world's first Controller-Pilot Data Link Communications went operational at the Federal Aviation Administration's Miami Enroute Center Oct. 7, with participant American Airlines Inc. making contact at 7:38 a.m. The data link replaces the current method of two-way voice radio with faster, more reliable text messaging for nonurgent exchanges.

FAA officials anticipate that once the data link is used by additional airlines and deployed nationwide, it will help relieve frequency congestion. The agency hopes to expand the program to the rest of its 20 domestic centers by 2007, according to Martin Cole, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association's representative for the 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.

Instead of forcing aircraft to fly along predetermined routes, Free Flight lets pilots choose the most efficient paths, speeds and altitudes, depending on the prevailing conditions. It builds on the FAA's ongoing effort to implement new computer and display systems, enabling the agency to introduce software that assists controllers and to ultimately retire the paper strips that have been used to mark aircraft movement for decades.

"Certain controllers and pilots are going to have different levels of comfort," Thornton said, describing the Miami site as a learning lab. "I look at [the data link] like the beginning of e-mail."

Currently, the data link provides:

n Transfer of communications — Controllers switch aircraft to a different frequency.

n Initial contact — Pilots check in on the new frequency.

n Altimeter settings — Controllers uplink settings.

n Menu text — Controllers and pilots swap preformatted text messages, such as "Expect delays."

Down the road, the FAA will add five more capabilities, for altitude, heading and speed assignments, route clearance, and pilot-initiated downlinks, Cole said. The last category will enable pilots to electronically request altitude changes, he said.

"Free Flight delivers," Thornton said.

The FAA claimed another success in April when it brought the User Request Evaluation Tool to the sixth air route traffic control center, completing the 4-year-old Free Flight program's first phase. The tool takes care of the complex calculations needed to ensure that a change in a flight plan doesn't put one aircraft in the path of another. The agency expects to enhance the Controller-Pilot Data Link so it will operate with other decision support tools such as the evaluation tool, Thornton said.

The $48 million Miami program was made 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," Cole 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.

The Air Force will come on board in December, Delta Air Lines in January 2003 and FedEx Corp. sometime next year, Thornton said. Continental Airlines Inc. is talking with FAA officials, he said. Meanwhile, the agency is working with CSC to develop a schedule and budget for the national rollout, he added.

***

Making progress

Two other Federal Aviation Administration programs recently reached milestones, according to the agency. The Wide Area Augmentation System passed a 60-day stability test. WAAS enhances information provided by the Global Positioning System, which enables users to determine their positions anywhere in the world and broadcast it to receivers on aircraft. FAA officials are now waiting for the completion of a 30-day analysis, but said it looks good so far.

Meanwhile, the Integrated Terminal Weather System passed an independent operational test and evaluation in Atlanta, receiving the stamp of approval for deployment nationwide. ITWS will enable air traffic controllers and airlines to better anticipate weather conditions by pulling such data from multiple sources for more accurate and timely information.

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