The Data Debacle: Hidden Costs, Fine Print

Time and money spent on data currency have become leeches on the back of GA, owners say. And even then, the data may be incomplete. Are sales suffering?

Way back when RNAV for light aircraft was the Bendix/King KNS80 rho-theta system, keeping current charts was easy. For 20 bucks and a stop at the local FBO, you replaced all your data: One sectional, the local approaches, an A/FD and an enroute chart or two.

If you were a serious traveler, price, weight and hassle escalated if you paid a premium to get updates mailed to you—in big packs or neat little envelopes—so you always had the latest charts.

Those quaint days are gone forever, done in by the “convenience” of modern digital navigation where all your data lives on cards that you plug into your navigators. But judging by the e-mail we receive, owners are getting wise to the fact that all this data is more expensive than charts ever were.

There seems to be more of it and some has to be bought in duplicate, causing many owners to say: enough. We’re hearing this complaint more frequently than ever and some owners are bailing out of GA because of it.

And while the iPad seems to have made chart access cheaper and easier, there are economic and bureaucratic trends afoot that could wither the bloom on that rose. While there’s no question we’ve stepped forward in capability and convenience, the patina of perfection on the digital cockpit is wearing thin for many consumers as the burdens and limitations of digital reality show through. Some problems are slowly getting solved, but others are unlikely to change. Some are destined to get worse.

Holes in the System
The marketing claim for digital charts and data is that you always have the most current information. This is patently false on several counts.  One of the selling features of the iPad is the seamless sectional and enroute charts, allowing users to scroll across the country as they fly. But there were problems. Where separate charts got stitched together, the lines didn’t line up on some programs. Sometimes, the overlap obscured the name of a facility or fix.

Altitudes and other details of MOAs and Restricted areas are printed on chart margins, but those margins are cut off by the stitching.

Those specific problems have been fixed by major app makers, but not before they got the attention of the FAA’s charting arm, which is now flexing its muscle to ensure its charts are “used in a responsible means.” They also weren’t the only problems. One of our editors was sitting in an idling airplane and realized he needed the frequency for the on-field VOR test facility (VOT).

The most popular apps, ForeFlight and WingX, both struck out because it wasn’t in their extracted airport data or the airport-specific A/FD pages. VOTs are available in the printed A/FD. FlightGuide’s app had it in their airport data and it could be found on the back of the airport diagram approach plate in Jepp’s app, if you knew to look there.

Information not present on one product could be found on another. The same is true of the Jepp system. Chop all that up and stuff falls through the cracks. App makers are actively patching the holes, but they don’t have it done yet.

The myth of current data extends to cockpit avionics as well. We received a phone call from a pilot in Florida who pulled out his iPad chart for an RNAV (GPS) approach into Fort Myers, Florida. No approach could be found. It had been dropped for that charting cycle.

Jepp told us these deferrals are a rare occurrence. When we asked how rare, they sheepishly gave us a definition of rare we were heretofore unaware of: Out of the past 13 cycles, approaches have been deferred six times. That’s not six approaches. That’s six cycles, or almost 50 percent. Each time somewhere between three and 12 approaches didn’t make the cut, out of all approaches in the western hemisphere. So it’s rare to come across one of these, but they are often out there lurking.

Jepp showed us as we’ll that the number of pages of source data they process is on a steady rise, with the number of deferrals on a slow rise in consequence. Jepp is redistributing resources to try and squash this problem, but they tell us that won’t have any sizable impact until they complete the process next year.

There are now more than 23,000 instrument flight procedures in the U.S. alone. FAA administrator Babbitt’s comments to Congress underscore how this problem will get worse before it gets better: “The FAA also plans to publish Wide Area Augmentation System Localizer Performance with Vertical Guidance (LPV) approach procedures for all suitable runway ends by 2016…Through our new NAV-Lean process, we are working to streamline the…Implementation of new instrument procedures to ensure that users can benefit from them as quickly as possible.”

Finally, the data on your iPad or the usability of your database full of approaches is only as current as the latest publishing cycle. Any of those items could be superseded by a NOTAM you need to retrieve from the FAA’s Nixon-era information system. At least the better apps make it easier to parse and, we’re told, the FAA is working to improve things.

Price of Knowledge
That brings up the issue of cost, both in money and in time. We hear a steady stream of complaints here. Just a single WAAS GPS costs $575 for full U.S. NavData revisions and current obstacles. And you have to download the NavData from Jepp, but the obstacle data from Garmin.

That’s peanuts compared to keeping up a glass cockpit. The cheapest solutions are the fully integrated systems like a Garmin G1000. Here, there’s only one copy of each database. Expect about $1300/year for CONUS data and charts for a G1000, using Garmin’s government-source charts. Add about $600/year for Jepp charts. in retrofit glass cockpits with multiple pieces of hardware that communicate, but that each have their own database, costs can top $3000/year if you want everything up to date. And you’d better dress warmly for updating all those systems in the winter. That, and get a ground power unit to keep your battery from dying.

Part of the problem is that even though a GNS 430W and an Aspen MFD essentially use the same navigational data, they encode the data differently. Jeppesen “packs” the data for each kind of device before selling it, which is why your GPS database won’t work on your MFD.

Do you get a refund if the approach you paid for isn’t in the database? Not if Jepp tells you about it. There’s a link for chart notices when you download your Jepp NavData. In the bulletins, it will warn you of missing approaches. “We provide a system,” says Mike Pound of Jeppesen Corporate Communications. “If it’s in the chart bulletins, then it’s part of the system.” However, there have been cases where notes about missing approaches weren’t in the notice. In that case, says Pound, the customer would be justified in asking for some kind of credit.

Watching your invoices and comparison shopping is now part of the digital aviator’s life. Both Jepp and Garmin offer bundle discounts when you order multiple databases for a device (panel-mount or portable) or own redundant units, such as two Garmin GPS navigators. You can save hundreds, but we’ve gotten multiple e-mails about these discounts not being billed correctly. The companies always make it right, but you may need to sit on hold with customer service for a while to get the credit you’re due.

Might a system like Aspen’s tablet-based Connected Cockpit fix this? Not likely. Not yet anyway. Future systems might be built with updating and sharing more in mind. “If you go 20 years down the road, I think all aircraft will be on the internet,” says Steve Podradchik of Seattle Avionics, the company that supplies government approach charts for Aspen MFDs, among other things.

While it couldn’t happen with current avionics, future systems with a Wi-Fi link, such as Connected Cockpit has, could download their data automatically when they get within range of an FBO Wi-Fi. It’s also true that the FAA still holds the keys to the spectrum reserved for microwave landing systems (MLS), which happens to be a great frequency for Wi-Fi.

Until then, the best you can do is either suck it up or pare down what data you can.

Are There Alternatives?
We’ve explored ways to shave the cost and time burden of the digital world in various ways. One is clearly to let data expire. Terrain and obstacle data is an obvious candidate as it changes slowly. Garmin offers one-time updates instead of subscriptions here.

NavData is trickier, as currency is usually required to legally conduct GPS approaches. Check the flight manual supplement for your avionics to confirm what’s legal, as you might be able to use expired data so long as that approach hasn’t changed since the data publication cycle.

But now you’re saving money at the expense of time checking all these details, or just gambling it won’t matter even if it has changed. Many pilots we talk to would rather pay extra and not bother. Both Jepp and Garmin have offered more bundle pricing and one-time update options in response to customer demand. Also, NavData for only half the U.S. might save you $70/year.

On the digital charts side, cheap iPad apps may have become their own worst enemy. The move to digital charts in the cockpit eroded the sales of paper products and motivated the FAA to change its sales policy to its charting agents in 2010. Smaller vendors largely disappeared, leaving mail order the only option for paper products for many pilots. See the sidebar on pages 5-6 to see how the FAA is going after that lost income.

Jepp has felt the pinch of dwindling paper, too. Seven years ago, they printed enough approach charts to circle the equator 12 times: 2.5 billion sheets. That doesn’t count their enroute charts, either. Last year, it was 1 billion sheets. This year should be about 800 million and with airlines going to digital plates, the total will plummet over the next few years.

Jepp tells us they aren’t seeing dwindling subscriptions so much as  a shift to digital. That started with pilots going with only digital charts on their MFDs and now many are letting the MFD subscription lapse, choosing to subscribe on the iPad instead.

This actually gives Jepp a market wedge. Jepp subscriptions to a small area of the U.S. can cost under $100. But the full U.S. is actually on each iPad and can be unlocked remotely. Need more coverage for only 28 days? Call Jepp with a credit card number and you get it in 30 minutes or less. International data can also be added on a one-time basis.

ForeFlight has taken the leap to add Canadian coverage for an additional fee and has plans for all of North America. That’s a gamble as international data is expensive and more complex to manage, and is a shot across the bow of Jepp’s market share.

Had Enough Yet?
Another lurking issue is that anything built up from consumer-grade electronics has a limited lifespan. The GNS 430 design is 13 years old, but don’t expect more than three years usefulness out of your iPad.

Here’s a twist on that for owners of older Entegra MFDs. The system is based on Windows NT and can’t recognize a USB stick over 2GB. You can’t buy 2GB USB sticks new anymore, so as the sticks eventually fail (and they do) Entegra owners have to go hunting for replacements to upload data or download engine logs. E-bay anyone?

Our takeaway from all this is that the digital cockpit revolution has paralleled the personal computer: A Lilliputian army of hidden annoyances, unforeseen consequences and cumulative costs tarnish the leaps in capability and the potential for ease. You must become your own mechanic, making decisions to provide what you need, recognizing the limitations of what you get and hoping the costs don’t swamp the benefits.