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FAA Says New Communication Technology Could Help Flights Arrive Faster

The system cuts what has been at least a 15-20 minute verbal process down to just seconds of data transmission, which can make a big difference.
Ryan Parks
Ryan Parks of Arlington, Va., talks on the phone as he waits for his flight to Boston at Washington's Ronald Reagan National Airport, Monday, Jan. 25, 2016.AP

Federal Aviation Administration controllers and pilots are using new computer technology that could help flights get to their destinations faster and safer.

DataComm, an instantaneous communication system, will soon replace the back and forth radio conversations between pilots and controllers.

The new system sends text messages and computer file transfers about flight routes, air traffic and weather directly to the plane’s cockpit. It cuts what has been at least a 15-20 minute verbal process down to just seconds of data transmission, which can make a big difference when dealing with unexpected circumstances.

"When you're trying to get re-routed, that is crucial because you're the one who will be able to get out ahead of the weather," FAA Administrator Michael Huerta told NBC News.

When a major storm requires planes to reroutes their flights, it typically leaves pilots and passengers waiting on the tarmac. Rather than taking time to verbally confirm each and every reroute, air traffic controllers are able to send out new flight patterns, altitudes and air speeds with the touch of a button, the FAA said.

"With DataComm, a controller can give multiple aircraft their flight plans all at the same time,” Huerta said. "What that really enables a controller to do is focus on where they need to be focused on ensuring that the airfield is operating in a safe manner."

The direct transfer of information also reduces the risk of dangerous miscommunication mistakes, aviation officials say. No more garbled radio transmissions.

"Anytime we remove the human element from something, we are definitely improving the safety of our system," said Jim McAllister, an FAA air traffic controller.

The new text transmission does not rely on radio waves, which can fail if the waves are blocked by a building or gate, he added.

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At this point, eight U.S. airlines and 17 international carriers plan to add the DataComm to their planes. The new technology roll-out began in Salt Lake City, Utah as part of the FAA’s NextGen upgrade and the system is expanding across the country.

By the end of the year, 50 airports are set to have the new system in place.

Airlines expect faster re-routing around severe weather and traffic congestion with the new system, but they also expect to see major savings on fuel costs. Delta Airlines estimates that each minute they save with DataComm will result in $20 million in savings system-wide.

Huerta says flight crews love the new technology because it makes their lives a lot easier.

"It reduces controller work load, it enables us to expedite flights much more quickly and to do it all safely,” he said.

As air traffic continues to grow in the U.S., the FAA works with airlines to update and implement new technology to improve safety.

"What travelers will see is fewer delays and more consistent schedules. Ultimately what we want is a very efficient system, a very predictable and reputable system that ensures that airlines can meet their schedules,” Huerta said. "And ultimately, that's what travelers want."