Don’t look now, but DUATS (the direct user access terminal system) is 20 years old this month. In what may be one of the best examples of the federal government’s making wise use of taxpayer dollars, DUATS has evolved over the years into one of the best free services available to pilots.
From today’s perspective, DUATS’ roots were humble. In September 1989, personal computers were few and far between. Back then, the Internet had yet to appear in any meaningful way. And connections? Dial-up was the rage—and we liked it! Ever so slowly (compared to modern DSL and T1 speeds), your computer shook hands with data providers’ servers that understood MS-DOS only. The result was a dot-matrix printout that came from a noisy printer spooling out a continuous stream of paper. And the weather graphics we’ve all come to take for granted? They existed at FSSs only, when the vast majority of pilots dialed 1-800-WX-BRIEF for information, and oral briefings—and mental pictures—had to suffice for preflight planning.
“Oh yes, the access was pretty clunky back when we started up,” said Bill Young, program manager for Data Transformation Corporation (DTC), one of today’s two DUATS providers. “But the FAA was smart. They paid us by market share, so there was an incentive to always improve our products.
“In the beginning, there were three DUATS contractors: DTC, Contel—which later got bought by DynCorp, then CSC [Computer Sciences Corporation]—and Lockheed Martin. Lockheed Martin dropped out after a short time,” Young added. Lockheed Martin returned to the government-subsidized briefing market big time when it was awarded the contract to privatize and centralize the FAA’s flight service station functions in 2006.
Now, DTC and CSC share the DUATS market. Estimates are that CSC has a 55-percent share, and that DTC has 45 percent. “We probably handle 8,000 to 10,000 flight plans per day, on average,” said Leon Thomas, CSC’s program manager for DUATS. “And over the years, I think the biggest change for DUATS was the switch from strictly dial-up access to an Internet-based front-end system with forms that store your personal profiles. That eliminated the need to answer question after question and follow prompts each time you logged on for a briefing or flight-plan filing.” CSC’s Web site first went live in 1994, although the company still offers old-fashioned dial-up access.
Today’s DUATS providers offer features that have made them primary go-to sources for various flight planning tools. Why phone an 800 number when you can go online and see a wide range of weather charts and other graphics in living color? The visit still counts as an official FAA weather briefing, and DUATS flight planners can be used to optimize your route. Besides, the 800-number telephone briefings are still offered by Lockheed Martin, and dial-up DUATS access—still required per the FAA contract—remains available for those without Internet access.
Apart from directly going to DUATS Web sites, their services also are provided via third-party vendors. DTC and CSC have agreements with other portals offering flight planning services, and customers are routed from them to DUATS. DTC serves weather and flight planning Web sites such as those belonging to Seattle Avionics, RMS Technologies, Jeppesen, and AOPA’s Internet Flight Planner. CSC’s Thomas says his company serves “all third parties. I don’t know how many…and we give many of them the technology to set up links, free of charge.”
DTC recently began its DUAT mobile service, which lets pilots use PDAs and smart phones for access to briefing information and flight planning services. Similarly, CSC is also accessible through iPhones, BlackBerrys, and other such portable devices. “The trend is definitely toward cell phones and other portable Web browsers,” said Thomas. CSC also supports Stenbock and Everson’s new Golden Eagle FlightPrep software, which provides automatic routing, weather overlays, VFR and IFR charts, rubber-banding of routes, and much more—including flight plan filing. DTC provides charts, including airport diagrams, instrument approach plates, and sectional charts.
DUATS may have begun slowly and tentatively, but it’s mainstream today. We’ve gone from dot-matrix to full-service, all in just two short decades. Check your iPhone or BlackBerry for the next in what is sure to be a slew of ever-improved capabilities.