How pilots and controllers communicate digitally

“It’s good to talk”, so we were told by a 1990s advertising campaign by a telecoms company. Talking constitutes a large part of our communication with each other, but in a digital age, non-verbal communication its making up for an ever-increasing proportion of how we interact with each other. This is particularly true for pilots and Air Traffic Control (ATC).

The majority of interactions between pilots and ATC is still conducted by voice. It’s quick to send and is quick to receive a reply. In the fast-paced environment around the airport with multiple arriving and departing aircraft, the speed of communication is key. When ATC issues us with instruction, they need a rapid response.

CPDLC has multiple benefits for both pilots and controllers. (Photo by Charlie Page/The Points Guy)

However, when away from the frenetic lower altitudes, an instantaneous reply isn’t quite as important. As airspace begins to get busier again, more aircraft are being handled by individual controllers. With more aircraft comes increased radio transmissions and the increased chance of mistakes being made.

One aircraft replying to the call meant for another aircraft, pilots missing a call meant for them and multiple transmissions being broadcast at the same time are all common events on a busy frequency. In addition, you may have a pilot and a controller from two different countries communicating in a language which isn’t their first — English. Accents can sometimes be difficult to understand and mistakes can be made as a result.

The use of a text message-based system nullifies all these problems, not only increasing flight safety but ATC efficiency as well. It’s known as controller pilot data link communications (CPDLC).

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