July 21, 2014 6:22 pm

Why more pilots are using ‘texts’ to communicate with the ground

TORONTO – A practice that is both illegal and unsafe behind the wheel of your car is now expanding as a safety measure in air traffic control.

More and more pilots are communicating with the ground via text messages.

Global News was invited inside the Nav Canada centre near Pearson Airport for a look.  In a subdued light, controllers sat in front of shimmering computer screens monitoring the movements of flights all over North America.

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“We used to use just a round radar screen with no information on it, and now look at the stuff we’ve got on there now,” said Corrie Golden, who’s been an air traffic controller for 17 years.

He showed how with the click of a mouse he can call up detailed information about an aircraft’s starting point, destination and route.

Controllers still communicate principally with voice but what is called Controller Pilot Data Link Communications, or CPDLC, is gaining ground.

Texts are being used for routine messages, such as requests to change radio frequency or altitude.

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Nav Canada has been texting flights over the Atlantic for years.  The technology started rolling out across the system on the mainland in 2011.  The Pearson control centre, the nation’s busiest, has been using it since May. Canada is considered a world leader in the technology.

“I enjoy it.  It’s got some good features to it,” said Golden.

It allows him to send a message only to the aircraft for which it is intended, unlike radio.

English is the international language of air traffic communication but occasionally messages can be garbled due to accents or imperfect understanding.  Texts minimize the problem.

“The message is clearer to the pilots and the controllers and there’s a lot less chance of confusion,” said Dan Adamus, who speaks for the Air Line Pilots Association.

Adamus pointed out that while new aircraft typically come equipped with the needed hardware, older ones would need to have it added, which could be costly.

“So it’s going to be quite a decision for an airline to make that doesn’t have this,” he said.

At the moment, texts are only going to flights above 29 thousand feet. For every other portion of the journey and in emergencies, voice still rules.

© Shaw Media, 2014

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