Convenience: A Government Subsidy

Two of the tenets of good habit formation is that you give people a motivator to do the right thing, and you make it easy to do so. Up until the fall of 2010, the Aeronav Services branch of the FAA could have been a poster child for building good pilot habits on keeping current with airport, approach and charting data. Printed charts were available at virtually every FBO and digital charts were a free download for all.

As our investigation on page 5 reports, the party started winding down in 2010 with restrictions to paper chart sales, and now a whole micro-industry of flight planning apps and websites are hanging in limbo, knowing free downloads of data will disappear by April 12, 2012. In the meantime, downloads that were available weeks in advance are now available 24 hours in advance.

There has been much hand wringing on both sides of this row that access to this data is a safety issue. The FAA says poor or incomplete repackaging of its data jeopardizes safety; the industry says restricting pilots’ access to this data in any way jeopardizes safety.

As we show in our investigation, the core issue here is money. But isn’t it still a safety issue? I think not.

We do accident scans for this magazine every month, ranking the causes into categories. We’ve never had to create category for “Didn’t have the right radio frequency,” “missed the NOTAM” or even “Used an out-of-date approach plate.” Terrain warnings have an obvious safety potential. Aircraft position on the approach plate is arguably a boon to safety. But there are simply enough checks and balances in the system that flying with obsolete data rarely causes a serious mishap. Embarrassment, maybe. But nearly universally, this is the stuff of NASA forms, not NTSB reports.

There is, however, something significant to be said for convenience. Howie Keeife built a sizable business on his various chart atlas systems because it was more convenient to have a bound book when traveling than collect and organize all those separate charts. The iPad and similar devices make it easy to have the right data available. You’re less likely to call on the outdated Tower frequency or blunder into restricted airspace en route. You can call up an approach chart without fear (or guilt) that maybe the circling minimums changed last month.

Even if that isn’t going to put a detectable dent in the fatal accident rate, it’s good for the industry. The FAA NOTAM system may still be in the communications Bronze Age, but clever app developers have parsed and organized the data so it’s easier to get it right. The FBO that rented out a 172 might not have the margin to keep the GPS database current, but for $75 a year, all the airport information is at a pilot’s fingertips—on the phone that pilot had in his pocket anyway. This kind of technological hipness is one of the shining exceptions in an industry that’s got a bit of an image problem. While it’s important to reduce the fatal accident rate, we need to aim a bit more broadly to really attract new pilots and keep the ones we have.

In the pay-to-play, NextGen future the FAA is shaping, it’s no surprise that someone latched onto the idea that the government should stop giving this valuable data away for nothing. (Well, except we paid for it last April, right about the 15th of the month.) But the scheme can’t work. If there’s anything the website world has proven is that people won’t pay more than peanuts for digital data if there’s any way around it. If the FAA tries to recoup serious royalties from the data the way it made a return on paper chart sales, it’ll kill the industry. Most people will get just the barest charts they need (paper or digital), troll the internet for bits of free data to supplement (even though free sites like RunwayFinder will vanish), and fly with whatever stuff they have. Up goes another barrier to entry for new pilots. On goes another weight on the back of existing pilots. Down goes the industry further, which means even fewer people to pay.

And if they only charge a small royalty, it’s hard to imagine it would be enough to even be worth the trouble on Aeronav’s bottom line. But it’s not hard to imagine how it could squelch this corner of aviation where free data has been the foundation for something truly beneficial.  –Jeff Van West