Newark, New Jersey (CNN)As Memorial Day weekend kicks off, the Federal Aviation Administration is touting the expansion of new technology in both air traffic control towers and airliner cockpits that would let controllers communicate critical flight route changes instantly via text messages.
Is texting in the cockpit ready to take off?
"Data Comm," or data communications technology, allows air traffic controllers to send text messages with flight routing information and routing changes directly to an airplane's onboard computer, which can be instantly uploaded to a plane's navigation system. The information is simultaneously sent to airline dispatchers, saving pilots from the task of notifying their own airline of routing updates.
This technology eventually could replace traditional voice-to-voice communications, which leave controllers and pilots vulnerable to human error if a command is misheard.
During a tour of Newark's control tower and of several jets equipped with the texting technology, FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said an air traffic controller has to change plans for a variety reasons, from congestion to new cruising altitudes.
"Communicating these flight plans has been a time-consuming process," Huerta said. "Air traffic control has to call the cockpit on the radio and verbally relay instructions. Then the pilot has to confirm that transmission verbally, and then, in turn, manually enter that information into the aircraft's computer."
Several air traffic controllers CNN spoke with said there are errors on a daily basis, but one quickly added, "we always catch them, though."
Huerta told reporters that over the last two years, the technology has successfully been tested on aircraft in Newark and Memphis, Tennessee, by cargo airlines like FedEx and UPS, and is currently being used on some United Airlines flights into and out of Newark.
He said the FAA is rolling out the technology this summer to major airports in Houston and Salt Lake City, and by next year, plans are in place to expand the program to 50 airports nationwide.
Huerta said with summer coming, severe storms aren't far behind. He explains that Data Comm saves critical minutes for pilots on the flight line by allowing updates and flight rerouting to be programmed immediately before takeoff. That means planes can be cleared for takeoff faster, avoiding potential ground delays as pilots, air traffic controllers and airlines no longer need to work out and confirm new routing.
"We can't change the weather, but all of us are working on what we can do to move air traffic much more efficiently around it," Huerta said.
He added that the minutes saved meant that real-time updates would keep planes in the flight line and help them take off more quickly.
Huerta also sought to reassure the traveling public over a recent Government Accountability Office report that warned that hackers could potentially access the flight's control systems through the passenger WiFi network or through a plane's entertainment system. Last week, the FBI arrested a man who claimed he had done that several times.
But Huetra said there are "many, many layers of protection that are built into the technology systems" of aircrafts, and said planes are designed with several fail-safes "to make sure you don't have single points of failure."
The new software comes with a hefty price tag. The FAA says it is investing about $7 million dollars at each site to update control towers and lay the groundwork for the technology, and airlines pick up the cost of adding the technology to their own fleets. Huerta says the overall government investment in the entire next generation upgrades to air traffic has been about $6 billion dollars so far, but, he says, projections show that cost savings to passengers and airlines at least doubles the investment.