Government Shutdown Wreaks Havoc on Air Traffic Communications Modernization

Millions of dollars of training funds have been wasted.

government shutdown ATC
Millions of dollars allocated for training ATC and airline pilots for the new DataComm system will be lost due to the government shutdown.Ad Meskens/Wikimedia Commons

The government shutdown, now in its 18th day, continues to wreak havoc on everything from parklands to tax returns. With its strong connection to the government, the aviation industry is also suffering.

The National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) said in a press release that the implementation of Controller Pilot Data Link Communications (CPDLC or DataComm), a program to modernize the U.S. air traffic control system, is being adversely affected.

DataComm replaces verbal ATC communications with text messaging, improving efficiency and safety, according to NATCA. Several major airports around the country, including Chicago’s O’Hare and New York’s John F. Kennedy, and 10 large, regional Air Route Traffic Control Centers (ARTCC) have already begun implementing the system. One major issue is a delay in training due to the shutdown. NATCA said much of the millions of dollars that have been spent on training might be wasted because the training will have to be repeated as a result of the shutdown. For example, Chicago’s ARTCC alone spent approximately $1.6 million on DataComm training. Implementation there will likely be pushed back to next year.

“The training for DataComm has a very specific performance schedule,” said Jim Ullmann, NATCA’s director of safety and technology. “Because the timeline is so structured and the training so critical and time consuming, it places additional pressure on employees who are operating with only 83 percent (on average) of the staffing target at their facilities. This shutdown will delay the implementation of DataComm in many centers by up to a year.”

DataComm training is also required for the airline pilots using the system, so the airlines are in a similar conundrum regarding retraining. “The need to re-train will add costs and will no doubt delay the progress of this important airspace system upgrade,” said Joe DePete, president of the Air Line Pilots Association, International (ALPA).

Aircraft manufacturers and other companies relying on the FAA to move certification efforts forward are also going to see additional delays due to the freezing of government services.