New system at Twin Cities airport makes takeoffs and landings faster

Inside the air traffic control tower.
An air traffic controller keeps an eye on the airfield from the air traffic control tower at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport on Tuesday.
Evan Frost | MPR News

The Federal Aviation Administration says a new air traffic communication system will make flying in and out of Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport safer and faster, and possibly help the environment by saving jet fuel burned by idling planes as they arrange their takeoffs.

The "Data Comm" system is rolling out across more than 50 airports across the U.S. It's been running at MSP since November, and FAA and Delta officials showed off the system at the MSP control tower Tuesday.

The system replaces an elaborate voice-based radio system that required controllers and departing flight crews to share complex and lengthy flight plans by exchanging codes and data aloud, confirming the data and fixing any errors out loud. The new system is digital and sends text-based flight instructions directly to equipment on planes and airline dispatchers.

It's a $736 million nationwide program that went into operation in 2015 and is scheduled to in place nationwide in 2019.

A board used to keep track of different flights.
Information about multiple flights sit on a board used to keep track of the status of flights arriving and departing from Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.
Evan Frost | MPR News

"It provides more predictability in the operations so they can get their aircraft and their passengers and their crews from point A to point B as efficiently as we can," said Jesse Wintjes, program manager for the FAA.

He offered a sample exchange of a flight clearance that took a nearly four-minute conversation between a pilot and controller to exchange and confirm. In the new system, a simple keystroke can send the same information by digital radio to an in-cockpit computer for review and confirmation by a flight crew.

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Wintjes said the system should also cut down on errors as pilots or controllers mishear audible exchanges.

Controller Sam Tomlin said that was particularly valuable when storms and other obstacles require changes in flight routes or departure procedures that impacted planes waiting to take off. "I can do that for a lot more airplanes in a smaller amount of time and do it a lot more efficiently," with the new system, he said.

The system relies mostly on software upgrades to existing technology in the MSP air traffic control tower, although not all commercial airliners have it. FAA officials said only about 11 percent of departures at the airport use the system now. The rest rely on the old audio system. The new system is also airport-based and doesn't yet include midflight control instructions for planes.

A Delta Airlines pilot demonstrates the FAA's NextGen Data Comm system.
The system eliminates the need for pilots to write down codes they receive from controllers in hopes of saving time and preventing potential errors.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Digital flight data communication is part of the FAA's so-called "NextGen" air traffic control system, which has stirred controversy in the past. That focused on plans to more narrowly track flight paths near airports — and possibly concentrate aircraft noise over certain parts of south Minneapolis, for example.

The Data Comm system doesn't do that, although airport critics say they still wonder whether the new system won't change the way pilots approach and leave MSP, to the detriment of the people living nearby.

Jim Spensely, with the South Metro Airport Action Council, said he thinks better communications will be safer and lead to fewer potential conflicts among planes coming and going at the airport.

But he says he fears the increased efficiency may also encourage "drive and dive" landings that will require more maneuvering, more engine power and more noise around the airport.

Metropolitan Airports Commission spokesman Patrick Hogan says the new system doesn't involve any of the more controversial aspects of "NextGen," and only covers communications between the tower and flight crews. "Nothing more. It won't have any impact on the environment or on noise," Hogan said.