IT Modernization

FAA closes in on Next Gen Data Comms

FAA NextGen

"Wheels Up" graphic from the FAA's NextGen website.

The Federal Aviation Administration is closing in on its Next Generation air traffic control program's goal of getting text communications capabilities deployed to over 50 air traffic control towers by the end of 2016.

The Data Comms portion of the "Next Gen" air traffic control allows tower controllers to communicate directly with airplane pilots without having to make individual voice radio calls to each aircraft in the area.

With 54 of 56 planned airports now equipped with Data Comms capabilities, the FAA is close to its goal of having the rollout completed by the end of 2016. It said on Dec. 9 capabilities at Chicago O'Hare and Midway were online.

The two remaining airports, in Milwaukee and San Juan, "will be operational within days," an FAA spokeswoman told FCW.

The Data Comms capabilities allow towers to send text messages to flight crews, which can cut through the sometimes dense voice radio communications between the two.

Inside the airport tower with the Data Comms capabilities, controllers enter flight departure clearance instructions into a computer and push a button to electronically send information to an aircraft's flight deck. On board the aircraft, flight crews see text, press a button to confirm receipt, and press another button to enter the instructions into the aircraft's flight management system.

The process is more efficient than verbally passing along "waypoint" markers an aircraft plans to use along its route, which can be crucial in clearing the vehicle's path. FAA officials said that even one mistake, or "readback/hearback error," can delay needed navigation on and near the runway and impact other aircraft.

Prototype Data Comm equipment provided tower departure clearances during trials at Memphis and Newark that ended last January, according to the agency. Between 60 and 80 flights per day used Data Comm at during those tests, enabling the FAA to gather operational information to improve the final system, said the agency.

Next Gen is a multi-billion-dollar, decade-plus modernization project that has at times drawn criticism for delays and poor planning, but the Data Comm initiative has moved quickly. It was given the green light in 2014, and the FAA said it is completing the project two years ahead of schedule.

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 or follow him on Twitter at @MRockwell4.


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