MONTREAL—Pilots and air-traffic controllers texting each other? OMG! Your airline flight is finally starting to communicate the way the rest of the world does.Nav Canada
Caroline Heroux sits at the air controller workstation in Montreal, with a view of her exchange with a Delta Air Lines flight in a dialogue box.
Pilots texting in-flight might be scary but Middle Seat columnist Scott McCartney points out it's the norm in Canada and the U.S. is behind the curve. Photo: AP
Controllers and pilots aren't using their cellphones to text, even though many passengers now do using apps and in-flight Wi-Fi. Instead, planes with modern cockpit systems can log on to new systems at air-traffic control centers and link digitally. Rather than sometimes difficult radio calls, pilots and controllers simply send each other text messages to change altitudes, routes and hand off from one controller to the next.
The system has been in use for flights across oceans for several years. Canada now has it active across its domestic skies and European controllers have it in use in two large regions. But the U.S. is way behind.
By texting instead of talking, controllers have more time to process requests for airlines. Pilots sometimes request shortcuts or more-preferential routes based on wind shifts. And as planes burn fuel and lighten, pilots often want to climb to higher altitudes for smoother rides, faster speed and better fuel burn. Sometimes those requests don't get made or get put off or denied simply because controllers don't have time to coordinate new altitude and route assignments with other controllers along a plane's flight path. The chatter on radio frequencies can get intense.
If texting while flying sounds scary, relax. This isn't like texting while driving, because planes have two pilots—one flies, one communicates. And flying an airplane is all about working dials and reading instruments.
Air-traffic controllers say the best benefit is safety—miscommunication is the biggest source of air-traffic control errors. Over long-distance radio transmissions, numbers and instructions can easily be misheard. Sometimes pilots are preoccupied and miss radio calls for their flight. Sometimes instructions get read back inaccurately and must be repeated by the controller and read back again by the pilot. Sometimes transmissions get blocked because two people try to talk at the same time over the radio.
Controllers say it frequently can take two or three tries to get simple instructions to a flight crew, especially if English, the universal language of air-traffic control, isn't the pilot's primary language.
"If you look at a lot of accidents and incidents, you see multiple events. This is an opportunity to eliminate one of them. You're eliminating a source of potential error," said Sid Koslow, chief technology officer for Nav Canada, the privatized air-traffic control services provider for Canada.
This new system is expected to boost capacity and reduce delays, people in the industry say. Planes often must wait to take off so air-traffic controllers don't get overloaded with too many planes at once. Eurocontrol, the agency that coordinates and plans air-traffic control throughout Europe, says that once half of all airline flights in Europe are equipped to communicate by text message, controllers will be able to handle 8% more flights because their workload will be reduced by 16%. When 75% of airplanes have the equipment, 11% more planes will be able to fly simultaneously as a result of a 22% controller workload reduction.
Direct data communications between planes and pilots is a crucial part of air-travel modernization, and it's an upgrade the U.S. has been trying to implement for more than a decade without success. U.S., European and Pacific controllers do text message with pilots out over oceans beyond regular radio range. But over land, where skies and radio frequencies are more congested and the need for better communications is strong, the switch has been painfully slow.
Controller-pilot data links were well on their way in the U.S. in 2002. American Airlines equipped several airplanes that conducted airborne tests with the Federal Aviation Administration's Miami air-traffic control center. But the program was canceled. A 2004 FAA report cited cost growth and schedule delays.
Earlier this year, the FAA launched a limited test in Memphis, Tenn., to text instructions to planes waiting to take off, with plans to expand it later this year to Newark, N.J., and Atlanta. The agency says it will begin deploying Data Comm, as the program has been renamed, in all control towers in 2016 and in all high-altitude control centers in 2019.
Canada offers a taste of the future for U.S. pilots close to home. Pilots there text with controllers both over oceans and over domestic skies. U.S. airlines that frequently use Canadian airspace for trips to and from Europe and Asia are making use of the texting technology. Cross-country domestic flights that entail flying over Canada also benefit.
"We love the technology. It's accurate and quick—the same reasons why people like texting on their phones so much," said Capt. Joseph Burns, managing director for flight standards and technology at United Airlines, which has texting capabilities on most of its wide-body fleet. "It does seem to make the world a bit smaller."
Europe also has controller-pilot text messaging in use at two air-traffic control centers, and should have its system fully implemented by 2015.
Aircraft delivered from Boeing BA -0.45% and Airbus over the past decade or so come with the right gear installed. Canadian authorities say 50% of the planes flying in the eastern part of the country can make use of Controller-Pilot Data Link Communications.
"Request climb to FL360," meaning the pilot wanted to take the flight from London to Minneapolis up a bit to 36,000 feet above sea level. Ms. Heroux, 51 years old and a veteran controller, confirmed she could clear that flight level. With a couple of quick mouse clicks, she transmitted a message back: "Climb and maintain FL360." The pilot responded by text with "Wilco," short for "will comply."
"It's rather easy," Ms. Heroux said. "It's a great benefit for the traveler and a great benefit for the controller. This is the biggest step forward, because human error is taken away."
Controllers have pop-up windows with various choices of standard messages for altitude changes, frequency changes and some re-routings. Colored squares on the data tags for airplanes on the controller's radar screen change as pilots respond so that controllers get an extra visual cue in case a pilot doesn't see a message. Secure computers verify identity of the aircraft and make sure the links stay active.
"It's not rocket science, but it has to be done right," Mr. Koslow said.
Like many projects in air-travel modernization, there's a chicken-and-egg question: Should airlines spend money on equipment before air-traffic control agencies prove they can work with it, or should air-traffic control service providers spend first and then wait for airlines to catch up? In many projects, one side or the other has backed out or balked.
Nav Canada decided to push ahead with the technology years ago in part because it handles so many airplanes coming off the oceans from Asia and Europe that it knew would be equipped with data-link capabilities. The company thought if airlines saw the benefits in action, they would get planes equipped faster.
"To us, it's better to just do it rather than planning 10 years ahead and telling everybody what they need to do," Mr. Koslow said.