Texting and Flying – Improving Communications
Excerpt from the Hamilton Spectator on Texting and Flying
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.