Texting takes off for pilots and air traffic...
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Jul 14, 2014  |  Vote 0    0

Texting takes off for pilots and air traffic controllers

Canada leads world in technology for communicating with planes that lessens radio frequency congestion and language barrier issues.


OTTAWA—Texting and driving is now a no-no. But texting and flying? That’s an idea that’s taking off.

In a move that puts Canada at the forefront of aviation technology, air traffic controllers are using texts rather than radio to relay instructions to many of the aircraft flying high across the country.

The days of the Hollywood stereotype of a controller hunched over a radar scope, barking rapid-fire instructions to a string of aircraft appear numbered, replaced instead by the quiet click of a mouse.

Today, controllers are assigning pilots changes in altitudes, headings, speed and routings via text. And in return, pilots can text their own requests to controllers for changes to their flight.

It adds up to some 2,500 text messages a day — and climbing.

“This type of communication, this type of automation is certainly recognized within the industry as the way of the future,” said Rob Thurgur, assistant vice-president of operational support with Nav Canada, the agency that operates the country’s air traffic control system.

Known as “controller pilot data link communications,” the technology allows controllers working in area control centres to communicate via text with aircraft equipped to receive the messages, typically most commercial jets.

The text-based system uses a standard set of messages for the most routine communications. Once sent, the message appears on a cockpit display, where the pilots can read it and reply to acknowledge receipt.

Thurgur said text messages boost efficiency and safety by eliminating congestion on the radio frequencies and minimizing miscommunications that occur because of language barriers and bad reception.

“These issues around people transposing numbers, readbacks being incorrect and not being caught — you just don’t get those types of mistakes when the automation starts talking to each other,” he said in an interview.

While English is the official language of commercial aviation, vital instructions can get lost in translation in voice communications, a problem the new technology helps avoid.

“When you are talking to foreign pilots, you don’t have the language barrier because it’s all in text and it’s in a standard format that everybody understands,” Thurgur said.

“You don’t get accents or different emphasis that can be confusing due to some of those cultural differences.”

That’s important for Canadian controllers, who oversee hundreds of flights daily operated by foreign carriers from Europe and Asia that transit Canadian airspace en route to and from airports in the U.S. and points south.

But the texts aren’t foolproof. In May, controllers in Gander, N.L. sent a text message clearing a US Airways flight en route to Frankfurt to climb to 38,000 feet. The crew did not respond to the message as required and instead climbed to 39,000 feet, while a nearby jet was already at that altitude, according to a preliminary Transport Canada report.

Right now, the text technology is only used for flights flying above 29,000 feet. Voice communications are still used for flights at lower altitudes and for operations in and around airports. And a controller can always resort to voice communications to issue urgent instructions.

But Thurgur predicted the use of text technology will grow. “We’re continually pushing to see if there are advantages in different areas and what the limitations are,” he said.

Still, he said the reaction of some controllers has been mixed as texts remove the voice communication — and a human interaction — with pilots. But he says they quickly appreciate the benefits of the improved communications.

“You look at new controllers that are coming into the industry today. They’ve grown up text messaging and talking via this type of technology, so it’s almost second nature for them,” Thurgur said.

“Certainly demographics plays a part in people’s understanding and acceptance of this type of new technology.”

Nav Canada has used texting to communicate with flights over the North Atlantic, where voice communications can be spotty, for more than decade. It began introducing the technology in domestic airspace in late 2011 in parts of Quebec.

The Toronto area control centre — the busiest in Canada — was the last to come on line in May. Nav Canada says no other country has introduced the technology on such a scale in domestic airspace.

Toronto Star

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