You aren’t finished writing checks for an account-draining avionics upgrade when you fly it home from the shop. Now it’s time to buy database subscriptions. If you’re fat, dumb and happy updating your $180-per-year tablet app, get ready for sticker shock now that you have to feed electronic data into a Garmin or Avidyne suite. It’s a real operating cost that isn’t always considered during the buying decision.
While dealers are tasked with maintaining operating software, they generally don’t get involved with database subscriptions, but they should deliver a new installation with fresh data. After that, the daunting task of paying for and loading scheduled database updates is on you.
In this article we’ll sort through the data costs and update effort that tags along with retrofit avionics. Here’s a primer: Sticking to one brand of avionics could make the chore easier and cheaper.
Sourcing AND storage
With some exception—particularly for tablet apps—Colorado-based Jeppesen remains the primary provider of packaged primary navigation data, or NavData (which is airports, runways, frequencies, navaids, controlled airspace and restricted airspace) for nearly all certified avionics. Jeppesen, with its JAD (Jeppesen Aviation Database) has taken a beating over the years for its pricing structure and what some call a monopoly in the navigation data market. That’s changing and we’re seeing some flexibility on Jepp’s part, especially when it comes to bundled pricing. More on that in a minute.
Jeppesen gathers its raw data from a variety of agencies (nearly 220 worldwide), although it says none of the data is sourced from government-compiled databases. Once the data is loaded into Jeppesen’s centralized database, it’s crosschecked for errors and some data is occasionally sent back to the original provider for clarification and or corrections. Jeppesen NavData is updated on a 28-day cycle and coincides with the International AIRAC calendar. Jeppesen ChartView approach charts are updated every 14 days.
Consider that Jeppesen is the sole provider of base navigation data for nearly every certified retrofit avionics (and experimental brands, too), including Garmin, Avidyne, Aspen and BendixKing. This may also include terrain and obstacle data, plus the familiar Jeppesen approach charting, although Garmin offers its own electronic version of NACO terminal procedures—called FliteCharts—updated every 28 days. Seattle Avionics Software also offers digital charts.
Remember the bad old days of paper charts? From a price standpoint, those were actually the good days. Electronic data has proven to be more expensive than the heaviest briefcase of paper charts. With some exception, the plaguing problem with electronic data is the lack of a one-size-fits all solution. Generally speaking, while an Avidyne and Garmin GPS navigator may use the same underlying Jeppesen navigation database, the data is encoded and sized differently for each system, requiring the buyer to pay for multiple subscriptions.
This means storing and loading the data into the device may differ, too, although there has been progress in standardization by the use of SD datacards and thumb drives. If you own a Garmin GNS430/530, you are familiar with the Skybound Reader hardware that’s required to transfer the Jeppesen data to the GNS-specific card. Modern navigators including Garmin’s GTN750/650 and Aspen’s Evolution use SD storage for transferring the data to internal memory. BendixKing and Avidyne use thumb drives. Retrieving the data from Jeppesen is also getting easier.
While Jeppesen has been dinged for its finicky JSUM (Jeppesen Services Update Manager) data transfer application, it’s rolling out the next generation utility—JDM (Jeppesen Database Manager)—already launched for Apple iOS. This new drag-and-drop utility is aimed at reducing and simplifying updates.
Garmin pilotpak bundles
Garmin makes it relatively easy to bundle multiple avionics systems together, although interpreting its PilotPak pricing schedule isn’t. But there is a substantial savings when buying data for the whole panel.
For example, one of the more common bundle scenarios includes the Americas Standard with
FliteCharts PilotPak for the G500 PFD/MFD and the GTN750/650 touch navigator. This gives you all of the data you need for all three systems, including Jeppesen NavData, Garmin georeferenced FliteCharts, Garmin’s SafeTaxi surface charts, airport directory and obstacle/terrain data for $1122 annually. This includes data for North, Central and South America. There are additional options for worldwide coverage.
Garmin told us that PilotPak pricing stands regardless of whether you have a single GTN750/650 or a G600 and dual GTNs in the panel. That’s hard to determine when eyeballing Garmin’s pricing structure on its subscription web page.
For example, the head-scratcher is the “Americas” versus “U.S. Standard” FliteChart subscription. Turns out the only difference is the Americas version includes FliteCharts for the U.S. and Canada, while the U.S. Standard only includes U.S. FliteCharts and U.S. SafeTaxi diagrams. Further, if you only have one navigator, there isn’t a single box update option. You either buy the PilotPak package or purchase an annual subscription of Jeppesen NavData for $300.
While that seems relatively inexpensive, you’ll still have to purchase a scattering of single updates throughout the year for SafeTaxi charts, obstacle data or whatever other data you want to update. It’s pay now or pay later and PilotPak makes more sense, in our view.
NavData updates for discontinued Garmin products including the GNS530/430 are still supported and handled through Jeppesen. A yearly subscription for the GNS530W or GNS430W is $425.
Garmin offers obstacle and terrain data updates directly on its flyGarmin data services site. Consider that supplemental terrain and obstacle data doesn’t change as often as navigation data, so you might update it once a year.
Like Garmin’s GTN navigator, Avidyne’s new IFD540 and IFD440 hybrid navigators have several internal databases, including NavData, Jeppesen chart data, plus terrain and obstacle data (the smaller IFD440 doesn’t have charts).
Data for the IFD navigators is sourced from Jeppesen and stored on a USB thumb drive. Upload is straightforward; when the drive is inserted into the bezel-mounted USB port, the IFD recognizes that a data upload is present and away it goes.
Avidyne worked out bundle pricing through Jeppesen where multi-Avidyne display cockpits—dual IFD540 or IFD440, EX600 MFD, EX5000 Entegra, for example—are eligible for a $994 yearly flat-rate data subscription.
It’s important to note that this bundle only includes Avidyne systems. If you have an early-gen Cirrus with EX5000 integrated avionics and Garmin GNS430 navigators, you’ll need to buy separate data subscriptions. But swap those Garmin navigators with Avidyne’s IFD440 direct-replacement navigators and the $994 pricing will apply across the cockpit. A single IFD540 subscription, without charts, is $465 per year.
We like that data for a suite of Avidyne avionics is accomplished in a single download. Thankfully, gone is the serial number encryption for the avionics being updated, which made it impossible to use the same thumb drive on multiple systems. Now the aircraft tail number is used to identify where the data is going. With this, one drive serves all the boxes. What you can’t do is send the data from one system to the other. You’ll need to update each box individually.
Aspen and bendixking
Both BendixKing and Aspen Avionics devices use electronic data sourced from Jeppesen (NavData) and Seattle Avionics Software (ChartData). A Seattle Avionics subscription for Aspen’s Evolution MFD products includes FAA-certified georeferenced IFR and VFR approach plates, airport diagrams, arrival and departure procedures.
Seattle Avionics offers each Aspen customer 90 days of free US ChartData updates (enough for three cycles of 28-day updates.) After that, annual U.S. subscriptions are available for $299. Jeppesen data is also free for 90 days, and then $445 annually. Like other brands, NavData, obstacle and cultural data are combined into a single update, which is delivered via the Jeppesen data update manager every 28 days. Jeppesen also provides mapping and terrain data for Aspen’s ESV synthetic vision function.
The data is loaded to a MicroSD card, which we think is way too small to handle in the cockpit. If you don’t drop and lose it, it’s loaded into the slot at the bottom of the Evolution bezel. The BendixKing WingMan data services division handles the Jeppesen data for the company’s new KSN770 retrofit navigator.
We were quoted $550 for a yearly America’s subscription, while a single terrain data update is $287. Seattle’s ChartData is an additional $299.
Pay to Play Data
While we’re seeing at least some relief in data costs from previous years, a panel full of retrofitted avionics still means spending serious money on electronic databases. That’s surely the case for reader Jonathan Baldwin. His Piper Seneca is equipped with a three-screen Aspen Evolution suite, Garmin GTN750, Garmin GNS430W, plus an iPad loaded with ForeFlight’s Pro with a synthetic vision subscription. He tallied up a yearly cost that approached $2500—not including the SiriusXM subscription. Upgrading one of his GNS530W navigators to the GTN750 while retaining a GNS430W for backup added to the download process.
“The PilotPak update speeds for the Garmin GTN750 are faster individually, but since the various data packages with PilotPak come in separate downloads, it takes longer to download all of them versus the single download for the older GNS430W,” Baldwin told us.
The GTN750s single SD card is a huge improvement over the storage process for the older GNS products. The only data the GTN750 actively uses from the SD card is the Jeppesen charts. The other data is uploaded into the device upon power up.
Baldwin’s Seneca has far more avionics than the airliner he captains during his day job. For these bragging rights he takes the high cost of navigation data in stride.
“Electronic data subscriptions for all that stuff is expensive, but so is flying and anything that adds to the safety of my flying is money well spent.”
Speaking of safety, if you’re tempted to operate with expired data, consult the aircraft flight manual first. In it, the system’s flight manual supplement offers specific operational guidance on the legalities of maintaining the database. The Garmin GTN750 supplement prohibits GPS-based IFR, enroute, oceanic and terminal navigation “unless the flight crew uses a valid, compatible and current database”—for which you’ll pay.