En Route Data Communications

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Authors: Sehchang Hah, PhD.
Kenneth Schulz
Ben Willems

Willems, B., Hah, S., & Schulz, K. (2010). En route data communications: Experimental human factors evaluation (DOT/FAA/TC-10/06). Atlantic City International Airport, NJ: Federal Aviation Administration William J. Hughes Technical Center.


Data Communication (Data Comm) is one of the key enablers required for the implementation of the Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen) Plan. NextGen addresses increasing air traffic levels and complexity for 2015 and beyond (Joint Planning and Development Office, 2007). We present the experimental evaluation of Data Comm between en route controllers and pilots as an alternative to voice communication. We conducted the evaluation using an augmented emulation of the En Route Automation Modernization (ERAM) system. In 2009, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has started to replace the current Display System Replacement and Host Computer System with ERAM. We recorded and analyzed system, controller performance, and controller self-report data. We also recorded and analyzed controllers’ eye movements and oxygenation levels of the prefrontal cortex using functional near infrared technology. Our results showed that the most useful Data Comm interface was the Human-Machine Interface that combined keyboard, template, and graphical capabilities. An increase in the proportion of the aircraft that were Data Comm capable reduced the frequency of voice communications and lowered controller workload. Data communication failure of individual aircraft did not affect controller performance, but partial or full system failure increased the number of voice communications and workload. For the aircraft that did not have an integrated Flight Management System (FMS), controllers did not opt to use voice communications more often than using Data Comm, but integrated FMS reduced their workload. Our analysis did not find a difference between first-come, first-served and best-equipped, best-served policies. On the basis of these results, we presented recommendations for the NextGen Data Comm.