Industry awaits ARC report on changes to ADS-B plan

 - October 2, 2008, 7:32 AM

At a recent NextGen conference, Jim Linney of the FAA’s ADS-B office detailed the user community’s response to the invitation to comment on the agency’s notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM). Of the 1,372 responses to the document’s 85 separate issues, there were 101 positive comments, versus 1,271 negative–or “non-positive,” in FAA terminology–comments.

What did this tell the FAA? Essentially, it said that however wonderful new technology solutions may appear to their advocates, intended users are concerned primarily with the ratio of cost to benefits, and most of the users believe the agency’s ADS-B out equipage mandate will not produce a positive cost-benefit equation for general aviation or anyone else who flies below jet altitudes.

Following the user community’s rejection of the NPRM, the FAA appointed an independent Aviation Rulemaking Committee (ARC) to recommend rescue strategies for the document, with its report due on September 26. But well before that date, AIN had learned from individuals close to the ARC that its members had agreed with the user community that the costs of the plan significantly outweighed the benefits.

Slow Transition Unlikely
ADS-B is intended to be the foundation on which NextGen will be built, and the user community was generally looking forward to it, so users’ vehement rejection of the plan was a surprise. One insider told AIN that the NPRM planners believed that calling for “entry level” ADS-B out involvement in a program with a mandate 10 years into the future would lead to slow but steady user community transition by 2020. This was coupled with the theory that tying the mandate to ADS-B out equipage–whose avionics were much less expensive than those for the non-mandated ADS-B in–would encourage such an entry-level trend. 

However, the slow transition planners envisioned may not take place. Indications are that the community will postpone equipage, anticipating that avionics prices will fall over the next 10 years and that equipment purchased today would likely be obsolete by the time the mandate comes into force in 2020.

At the same time, manufacturers may be unwilling to launch new, lower-cost products until much closer to the mandate date, due to the likelihood of minimal demand before then, and the concern that earlier entry to the marketplace could rob them of the benefits of later technology developments.

If the FAA’s ADS-B program is to be launched successfully, non-compliance by a large proportion of the user community before 2018 or 2019 defeats the purpose of the lengthy transition and places a rapid and undesirable load, plus a steep learning curve, on the air traffic system. 

Since there are few cost benefits for users, it would seem that the agency could offer some incentives to spur users to action sooner. Perhaps understandably, the FAA has ruled out providing financial incentives to support ADS-B installations across the 200,000-plus non-airline fleet. But the agency is not opposed to the concept. After all, it paid for the much more costly ADS-B in plus TAWS terrain mapping installations in several hundred aircraft participating in the Alaska Capstone program.

And in August, the agency announced that it would subsidize up to $19,000 of the cost of acquiring and installing electronic flight bags (EFBs) and associated Honeywell Runway Awareness and Advisory Systems in 100 airline aircraft. Similarly, an FAA Data Communications Program official told a Eurocontrol controller/pilot datalink (CPDLC) working group earlier this year that the agency “is working on a rulemaking strategy to engender the necessary equipage to foster the benefits.” While the statement may have been rather ponderous, its meaning was clear: the FAA recognizes the value of incentives to launch programs, and is prepared to do so when necessary to overcome user resistance.

Incentives for Early Equipage
In one of its earliest statements, the ARC observed that “operational benefits are not enough to encourage voluntary equipage, and some financial incentives would be necessary to encourage early equipage.” It then offered the following suggestions:

• pay for the certification, purchase and installation of the equipment;

• provide a grant for the equipment;

• provide an investment tax credit;

• provide adjustments to the existing aviation excise tax rate;

• encourage market competition through research and development tax credits specifically targeted at ADS-B avionics development;

• reduce landing/overflight fees;

• provide a fuel tax break for equipped aircraft;

• and provide interest-free loans for equipage that are paid back when benefits are accrued.

The committee was expected to repeat those and other suggestions in its September 26 report. Whether the FAA will take heed remains a question.