IFR Chart Choices

Jeppesen still has the best of the best. But if you cant stand all that paper shuffling, Air Charts is the top value.

We wish we could tell you that the days of schlepping a heavy flightbag stuffed with charts and plates is a thing of the past. We wish we could say that through the magic of modern cockpit technology, all the navigation data once available only on paper is now accessible at the touch of a softkey.

We also wish we had a Learjet for our weekend rides to the beach and a handsome trust fund to support it. Unfortunately, all these desires reside in the same place: The fat chance file. The paperless cockpit has been around the corner for five years but for the average GA owner, it remains a shimmering mirage; paper is still king.

Much has changed since we last examined chart systems six years ago. From Jeppesen, charts are available electronically-on the desktop and, just becoming available, in the cockpit. Thanks to the Web, you can download current government plates and database revisions for your GPS from Jeppesen.

Where NOS used to prepare and publish aeronautical charts, the FAA has now taken over the task. Last, Air Charts, a service which repackages the governments publications, has improved and simplified its offerings. Yet with all these changes, one thing remains the same: The serious IFR pilot still needs paper charts and plates in some form; the advent of electronic presentation hasnt altered that thus far.

Whats Needed
Ostensibly, for IFR, youre supposed to have current charts and current database revisions for your GPS. The dirty little secret is that many pilots ignore this requirement in varying degrees and, frankly, we don’t blame them. The risk of an accident, incident or violation due to out-of-date charts is miniscule but, of course, always possible. Real sticklers will want nav data thats as fresh as possible and we don’t blame them, either.

So we’ll examine how the various charting systems revise data. Are they painless? Awkward? Hopelessly complex? Or something in between.

Second, how readable is the chart typography? Jeppesen excels in this regard but the FAA chartmakers have improved recently, closing the gap. Next, how easy is the stuff to handle in the cockpit, with regard to binders, clips and overall size? For many pilots, this is the overriding issue.

Last, cost. If you have an IFR GPS (or two), youre spending big bucks to duplicate navigation data on your paper charts so the cost of those products matters. Who delivers the best value for the buck?

Its no exaggeration to say that Jeppesen invented aeronautical charting as we know it; the government got into the act later. In both paper and electronic forms, Jeppesen offers a greater variety of chart products at various price points than any other source.

The basic Airway Manual service consists of a new content package with current plates and enroute charts designed to slip into a seven-ring binder. Jeppesen sells basic service for the entire U.S. or geographical areas such as the northeast, southwest and northwest or east or west of the Mississippi.

Plate revisions are sent every 14 days, along with updated enroute charts as needed and, an important note here, chart notams and/or critical notams already incorporated on the plates. (On government charts, incorporation of notams is slower and youre expected to buy a separate and expensive publication to keep abreast of these changes.)

Although it may be the most up-to-date charting system, the Jeppesen 14-day revision requires tedious insertion of new plates into the binders and the larger the coverage area, the worse the revision hassle.

Responding to complaints about this, Jeppesen introduced two services, Q-service and Express Service. Both work similarly. For a hefty price premium, Jepp starts the service with up-to-date contents and revises it with entirely new contents on a periodic basis. With Q-service, revision packets are sent every two weeks but filed en mass, rather than individually.

Every eight weeks, you get fresh new contents, tossing the old stuff, and the cycle begins anew. Lots of wasted paper, yes, but considerable savings in time. Q-service covers only the entire U.S. and at the princely price of $1336 a year, convenience aint cheap.

Express Service is similar to Q-Service but it breaks the country down into smaller geographic areas, so you can buy coverage for only limited areas, say the northeast, southeast and, in some cases, individual states. As with Q-service, new contents are sent every 56 days or, optionally, every 28 days, but there’s no two-week revision option.

To help far-ranging corporate pilots avoid backstrain, Jepessen also sells what it calls high-performance coverage, limiting the plates to runways of at least 4000 or 6000 feet.

This dramatically reduces paper volume in the binders. As with standard airway service, the high-performance option is updated every two weeks. Unlike the other chart services, Jeppesen tosses in lots of extras in standard, Q- and Express service, including an extensive legend, ATC preferential routing and a tabular listing of minor changes not incorporated in the plates.

Top Typography
Although opinions vary, our view is that Jeppesens paper and typography makes for more readable charts than the FAAs offerings. The paper is bright white, not the governments newsprint, and in general, chart elements are larger and easier to read.

Three years ago, Jeppesen began incorporating the so-called Air Transport Association format, which groups frequencies, critical courses and altitudes in a single box across the top of each plate, significantly simplifying data pickoff. With each new revision, Jeppesen converts more plates to this format. The FAA recently introduced its own version of this format, called the Volpe design.

Jepps enroute charts have also been redesigned since our last analysis of charting systems and now include more color, quadrangles with minimum instrument altitudes and ATIS frequencies for towered airports.

Jeppesen enroutes, however, are on flimsier paper than the FAAs version, making them easier to fold into manageable segments but also more susceptible to tearing than are the government charts.

For as long as we can recall, federal aeronautical charts have been provided by the National Ocean Service, a bureaucratic marriage only the government could devise.

Reasoning that NOS had more to do with ships than airplanes, the charting function was turned over to the FAA in October of 2000, overseen by the FAAs National Aeronautical Charting Office in Silver Spring, Maryland.

To the buyers of charts this signifies exactly nothing other than a name change. The charts are still produced in the same offices in Silver Spring, Maryland and prices havent changed following the switchover.

Like Jeppesen, NOS runs on a basic 56-day airspace cycle, with interim revisions issued via two methods: The monthly printed Notices to Airman publication and the off-cycle Change Notice, which is issued every 28 days.

Although the printed Notices to Airman booklet-not the same notams FSS reads to you nor what you see on DUAT, by the way-contains charting information thats not available anywhere else, the FAA is fuzzy on whether youre expected to subscribe to this publication. No one in the FAA could tell us. (If you want it, its sold by the Government Printing Office for $105 a year, stock number 750-004-00000-8.)

This much is certain, however: Jeppesen incorporates some of the material found in the Notices to Airman publication in its charts and plates as a matter of course, so to a degree, comparing the two systems is apples and oranges. That said, we doubt if the information found in the Notices to Airman booklet is worth the price of having it but the data found in it relates to IFR navigation.

The FAAs revision method is less painless than Jeppesens. The government merely mails you new charts and new plate booklets every 56 days and you toss the old stuff. The 28-day Change Notice includes important revisions between the booklet tosses but you only get that if you subscribe or make a point of buying it retail. (Not many pilots do.) FAA plate booklets are sold in both perfect bound versions-our preference-and loose-leaf drilled for specialized four-ring binders sold commercially. The loose-leaf versions allow you to remove and clip the plate to the yoke, a bother weve never found worth the hassle of shuffling the plates. The Jepp airway manuals are easier to use in this regard, in our opinion.

Like Jeppesen, the FAA carves its coverage into smallish bites, with enroutes covering regions and plate booklets covering a state or region. Increasingly, because of the proliferation of new approaches, the FAA is resorting to two booklets to cover a single large state, such as Texas. Nonetheless, the bound booklets are compact and easy to handle. Just bring a large rubber band to mark your place.

Gray Graphics
Government plates have all the graphic appeal of the U.S. Tax Code in 6-point type. Although it deserves kudos for use of color on the low-altitude enroute charts, which we find at least as easy to read the Jeppesen variety, the plates are still gray and dense, in our estimation.

Well concede that the FAA has improved its approach plate design, having converted to the so-called Volpe format, which is the government version of Jeppesens ATA format, placing the important data along the top of the plate, where it can be seen and picked off easily.

This is a clear improvement over the old design, whose too-small type size on flat, uncoated newsprint makes for hard reading, especially at night. But in general, we still find the FAA plates hard to read because of small type size.

Besides being generally more readable, Jeppesen plates have full-page aerodrome diagrams for all airports, not just major airports, as in the case in the FAA products.

Furthermore, weve found Jeppesen runway and taxiway diagrams to be both more detailed and up to date, a real bonus as ground controllers increasingly view every taxiing Cherokee as a potential runway incursion. Many pilots automatically opt for FAA plates because they assume the government stuff is cheaper. But is that true? Yes, usually. But it depends. Because the coverage areas vary, so do the costs. Refer to the chart link below for an analysis.

For full U.S. Jeppesen coverage, with standard two-week revisions, the cost is $848 per year. For the same coverage, the FAA charges $605.15. Add the notams publication-if you think you need it-and the price comes to $710.15 yearly.

However, depending on the geographic coverage area, yearly subscription prices between Jepp and the FAA are more comparable for smaller chunks of the country.

Air Charts
The nice thing about government data is that none of its copyrighted so you can copy, repackage and even sell it at will, which is exactly what Air Charts has been doing since 1962, when it was founded by Howie Keefe. Air Charts binds the FAAs normally folded low-altitude enroute charts into 11-inch square spiral atlases and provides standard loose-leaf or bound approach plate booklets.

Actually, Air Charts offers a wide range of repackaged government products, with various mix-and-match options and coverage areas. Air Charts value-added service is its update method, which is essentially a notams monitoring service that mails out notification of chart changes on a four and eight-week cycle. Heres how the system works:

The system is la carte, meaning you can pick and choose, buying plates only, enroutes only or even just the updater. The Air Chart cycle runs from May to May of each year. When you sign on, you get new contents-enroute charts in a bound atlas and FAA approach plate booklets.

Revisions are sent on a paper updater every eight weeks, with a postcard listing minor changes on the four-week cycle. The notams are given as text only, by state, so its relatively easy to find the revisions that apply to your destination, although its not always easy to decode them. The notam sheet itself lives in a pouch in the back of the atlas. When a new one arrives-with cumulative changes throughout the year-you simply toss the old one.

The idea is that you’ll pencil in any changes right on the chart or plate, but only as necessary. There’s no need to update plates you’ll never use, as with Jeppesen. Although we doubt many users actually do the penciling, this revision system is as simple as it gets and requires virtually no effort.

If the updater indicates that a new or significantly changed plate has been issued, Air Charts will mail it to you on request for $1 per airport or you can download it directly from the companys Web site.

Air Charts has three chart atlases, an IFR version covering the entire U.S., a VFR/GPS enroute and a new product called an Aviation Topographic Atlas, which, in a single edition, provides full WAC coverage for the U.S. in color.

The VFR/GPS product depicts principle navaids only and includes a lat/long grid for plotting long courses. As we go to press, Air Charts has added color to the IFR enroute atlas and we were impressed with the sample Air Charts sent along for our review.

For IFR charting, Air Charts is as cheap as it gets. The IFR kit includes entire U.S. enroute coverage and plates for $239, plus $85 for the updater for a total of $324. You can also mix and match, buying only approach plate coverage for the area you want or even using the updater to keep an expired FAA chart/plate set current. If you prefer folded enroutes, Air Charts sells those, as well.

Overall, Air Charts is an efficient, cost-effective system, if a little hard to grasp because of its many options. Our only beefs are minor: Because of the type size, the notam updater is an eye test and binding breaks make finding your way around the bound IFR atlases a chore at times. On the other hand, all the charts are always present and accounted for.

Electronic and Online
With everything from cars to kumquats being sold on the Web, youd think the internet would be a natural for disseminating IFR charts and plates. But no, that hasnt happened to any significant degree. Air Charts offers updated plates via the Web and another company, American Flyers, sells FAA approach plates on a piecemeal basis.

In our view, the American Flyers site-www.americanflyers.net-would be suitable for short-notice trip kits but not routine chart coverage. Heres how it works: You buy credits for plate downloads, at prices between $9.95 for 100 credits to $149 for 8000 credits.

At the low end, plates-really one side of each plate- are about a dime each but you get a price break if you buy more credits, down to a nickel per plate at the $149 maximum.

To select a plate, you navigate through a U.S. map, drill down to the region youre interested in and then the city. The site offers a menu of options ranging from departures, airport diagrams and approaches. You check the options you want and the site downloads the scanned charts as a PC Zip file that must be unzipped and the PDF charts viewed in Adobe Acrobat, then printed.

This system works seamlessly but we would stop short of calling it elegant. As we noted, its fine for quickie trip kits and one offs, but not suitable for primary chart provision. There’s no online enroute option but American Flyers has a pilot shop that sells paper charts and plates online.

If all you need is an airport diagram for a VFR trip, AOPA Air Safety Foundation offers those for free on its Web site, as part of a runway incursion safety effort. Again, these are scanned PDFs of FAA charts but just the runway information, no approach data. Jeppesen has the same free service on its Web site and, frankly, Jepps airport diagrams are better, in our estimation.

In our view, the most complete and credible electronic charting product comes from Jeppesen, a CD-ROM based system called JeppView. It instantly solves the tedium of revising plates but introduces shortcomings of its own.

JeppView features all of Jeppesens approach plates, with segmented coverage for various parts of the world, including full U.S. coverage. A JeppView subscription- $772-stuffs all the plates onto a single CD-ROM but provides conventional folding paper charts for the cockpit. Revisions arrive on a new CD-ROM every other week and new paper enroute charts are sent on the 56-day airspace cycle.

Jeppesen recommends-and we agree-that JeppView not be considered a cockpit system unless the aircraft is specifically equipped with a daylight-readable PC, not a laptop. Jepp intends that users print the plates theyll need in trip kit form. This raises the unavoidable shortcoming, of course, of what charts to print.

JeppView is cleverly designed to make assembling logical trip kits as painless as possible and will even sell you custom paper punched with Jeppesens seven-hole pattern. With a color printer, JeppView printed charts are exquisitely detailed but the fact remains, you simply cant predict which airports you might want for an emergency enroute so, ultimately, youre still stuck carrying paper charting as back-up.

Technology seems to provide a solution for everything but, in our view, it hasnt yet cracked the nut of aeronautical charting. Our dream system would be Jeppesens bright white plates with their exceptional typography bound into gum binders similar to the FAA booklet and updated via a somewhat more readable Air Chart revision system.

Ah, but life-and aircraft ownership-is shot through with shattered dreams so we have to settle for something less. In our view, if cost isn’t a concern and you can tolerate the revision hassle, Jeppesens standard or Express Service is the best of the best. Its accurate, up to date and the plates are simply more readable than the government products.

But for IFR pilots not obsessed with flyspeck detail and too impatient to shuffle endless revisions, Air Charts is clearly the best value. Although the FAA plates arent the best, the data is there and theyll get you on the ground. We don’t think Jeppesens obsession to revision details materially matter to the average GA pilot.

Air Charts atlases are convenient to use and revisions couldnt be easier. Itll take a little effort to slog through the updater but even if you blow off that task, the consequences are minimal.

As much as we like JeppView, its cost and high printing load make it less than ideal for the casual user but perhaps a first choice for a corporate flight department operation.

The real future may be in electronic charting but at this juncture, the crystal ball is so fuzzy that we cant predict or even opine when this will be an economical option. At the moment, we don’t think it is.

Also With This Article
Click here to view the chart checklist.
Click here to view the chart price comparison.
Click here to view the chart examples.
Click here to view “Why no Electric Charts?”
Click here to view the chart contacts & addresses list.