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Improving Communications Between Pilots and Air Traffic Controllers

Talking while driving: not a good idea. Texting while driving: downright dangerous. Talking while flying: essential. Adding textual communications between pilots and controllers into the mix: one step forward in making air travel safer and more efficient. 

Volpe supports the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) by helping change the way pilots and air traffic controllers communicate. Data Communications (Data Comm), a digital, text-based communication system for air traffic controllers and pilots, offers pre-written messages to replace some of the verbal communications over the radio. This reduces frequency congestion and gives the pilot and controller a written record of the communications. It also takes advantage of ground and flight deck automation, reducing controller and pilot workload, and increasing airspace capacity and efficiency by allowing routine use of more precise, closely-spaced flight paths.

Providing scientific and technical information to support the regulatory oversight function of the FAA’s Aviation Safety organization, FAA’s NextGen Human Factors Division relies on Volpe’s extensive experience studying human factors in the aviation context, including evaluation of new technologies to develop a comprehensive understanding of operational issues that can impact Data Comm.

The Challenge

Many of the improvements in FAA’s Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen)—reduced  delays, better fuel economy, and fewer carbon emissions, to name a few—rely on speedy and clear communication.

Conventional voice conversations over radio can lead to misunderstandings, delays, and radio channel congestion that leads to noisy or blocked transmissions. Even with clear airwaves, pilots sometimes incorrectly write down, misinterpret, or forget lengthy voice communications.

The Solution

With Data Comm, auditory communication turns visual. Controllers send messages to a specific flight crew, eliminating mix-ups over clearances for aircraft with similar call signs. Data Comm also allows reference to third-party aircraft call signs without the concern of introducing distraction or confusion using voice radio (party-line) communication. This is a key consideration for safe and efficient use of the flight deck-based interval management application of ADS-B traffic information displays.

A typical Data Comm interaction might look something like this: an air or ground user selects one of the pre-formatted messages and sends it. After evaluating the message and determining the appropriate response, the pilot or controller responds by selecting from a list of standard replies. The same messages will be available throughout the world. 

As part of Data Comm, the Volpe team is doing the following:

  • Improving the set of messages that will be used and providing coordination with the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) to ensure international harmonization of the messages.
  • Recommending refinements to flight deck and air traffic procedures to prevent communication errors.
  • Drafting guidance material on written aviation language proficiency for ICAO, ensuring that all pilots who use data link can read and write aviation English.
  • Assessing synthetic-speech auxiliary display options and minimum characteristics of the synthetic speech presentation of Data Comm messages. This evaluation in Volpe’s flight deck simulator demonstrates that the synthetic speech presentation allows the flight crew to receive Data Comm messages without turning their attention from other important visual flight tasks.

Volpe also supports FAA’s Flight Standards Service and Aircraft Certification Service by contributing to advisory material that will be used when Data Comm is operational.

The Impact

Data Comm is one of the enabling technologies that will help the FAA realize its NextGen goals. The human factors contribution to the program helps to minimize the probability of human error for both pilots and controllers, and helps the FAA develop regulatory guidance for safe and efficient use of this new technology for a variety of NextGen applications.

The instrument panel of a modern Boeing 737-800 airliner at night.


Federal Aviation Administration