R U ready 4 takeoff? MSP air traffic control will soon text pilots

The aviation industry is moving from talking on radios to texting. And the Twin Cities' ETA for the new system is by the end of the year.
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We know texting and driving don't mix at all.

But if you're flying an airplane, it sounds like texting is the way to go.

At least that's what the aviation industry is hearing from airports where pilots get their flight plans from the control tower by text, not over a static-y radio.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has been testing a system called Data Comm that lets air traffic controllers communicate with pilots by text messages. The tests in Newark and Memphis – pilot programs, you might call them – have gone well.

In fact, airlines and airports like the new technology so much, FAA administrator Michael Huerta said in a speech last week that instead of rolling it out nationwide over three years, the agency has agreed to speed that up to one year.

New York, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C. now have the system, USA Today reports, and 10 other airports including Minneapolis St. Paul International are scheduled to get it by the end of the year.

Why is texting better?

As the Wall Street Journal reports, the biggest source of air traffic control errors is miscommunication.

And trying to send each other precise information over a sometimes scratchy radio can actually slow things down.

USA Today's piece explains that the technology might be better suited for cheeseburgers than flight plans:

"At most towers, as a plane idles on the ground waiting to take off, controllers read a series of numbers designating the flight and its altitude interspersed with three-letter codes of spots along the path that the plane will follow. Amid the static, the messages can sound like the drive-through at a fast-food restaurant."

What's more, if a pilot reads back what he or she heard to the control tower and any digit is wrong, the entire process starts over. That can take several minutes and eat into tight schedules. The FAA's Huerta says improved on-time performance is a big reason airlines are pushing for the change.

The FAA says for now the Data Comm system is being used only while planes are at an airport. But plans call for expanding it to en route communications by 2019.

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