First Word: March 2010

Death By a Thousand Cuts

True or false: You are required to have current charts in the aircraft with you.

The answer is “false,” youre only required to have the right data. So that 2002-vintage sectional is fine so long as you

know the CTAF for your destination was changed three years ago to 123.05. Howie Keefe built a business on this premise with his Air Chart Systems. These were spiral-bound books with the sectionals and en route charts for the entire lower 48. You got the book once and then subscribed to the updates-delivered via mail with stickers you could put in the chart atlases as needed. This system was far cheaper than buying all those charts every time they were revised, and it was far more convenient to use if you regularly traversed wide swaths of the U.S.

Keefe (who has since sold Air Charts) contacted me after reading our Portable GPS Roundup (February 2010 Aviation Consumer). “Your great article stated that many users don’t bother updating their GPS. In selling aviation atlases via mail order houses, I was always surprised that only about 50 percent returned an attached card for a free update service … It might be that the high cost of updating their GPS units has made even more pilots take a cavalier attitude towards the FAAs 28-day update cycle.”

His logic is probably spot on. In our survey, about 14 percent of the GPS users subscribed to aviation data for their portables. Depending on how you read the data, somewhere around half the users update their aviation data once in a while. Yet we know far more than half the GPS users out there grab data like airport frequencies or expect valid obstacle warnings from those portables. This paradigm is no different than out-of-date charts, yet somehow we don’t see it that way. Maybe its because there’s no cheap fix. Keeping a portable current can cost hundreds of dollars a year.

Its worse for the panel-mount equipment. We got this letter from subscriber Marc Wiese: “A critical article on subscribers services for GPSs and MFDs is sorely needed. The overhead for the charts is killing us all. There needs to be more choices where we get these services … One GNS 480 and one GMX 200 is over $1300/year. That is outrageous. We need to be complaining to the highest levels. It should not cost this much for free government information we already paid for … If Anywhere Map can do it for far less, as can places like Flitesoft, then something is seriously wrong with the business model being foisted upon us.” He didnt even mention the subscription for datalink weather. Note to self: Include the data subscription costs in all future product evaluations.

Id love to know the real subscription rates for panel-mount products, especially on the G1000 where data subscriptions are granular. I know many G1000 owners who let things like SafeTaxi expire to save some bucks. Same with Cirrus pilots who don’t update the Avidyne MFD database regularly and rely on the Garmin 430s.

As more and more pilots depend on the data in their GPSs, this gets to be more of an issue. Back when ADS-B was still an amorphous plan in the mind of the FAA (oh wait, its still kind of an amorphous plan), free weather data was the carrot to entice aircraft owners to pay for the ADS-B upgrade. Datalink weather made that far less compelling, but it may start looking pretty good to pilots trying to escape the yoke of so many monthly bills. The situation also makes me wonder if there’s a market for cheap, “aftermarket data” for portables, or even for panel-mounts presuming thats certifiable. Any takers?

I don’t have anything against a business making its profit by selling razor blades rather than razors, but there comes a point when all those little cuts add up.

Jeff Van West