We owe the FAA a debt of gratitude for the most excellent job the agency has done to provide data to aid our flying. It is amazing that for a relatively small cost pilots have access to a wealth of navigation information. Much of it—VFR charting especially—is gorgeous, pretty enough to hang on a wall or use as wrapping paper after the expiration date.
What is even more amazing is that the FAA’s AeroNav Products Division—at least for now—sells all of this data in digital form to anyone for a paltry sum. You can download individual charts and approach plates for free, but it’s far easier to use one of the many aviation apps to view charts and terminal procedures than to manage updates and figure out how to store and view this stuff on your own.
The FAA’s munificence in making all this data available for $1,085.70 per year (for U.S. VFR, en route, terminal procedures and airport/facility directories) deserves recognition, even though the agency has said that it’s trying to figure out how to charge more. The result of low-cost data has been an explosion in development of incredibly useful smartphone and tablet apps, including creation of entirely new businesses built around those apps.
Pilots have a great choice of products—all with moving maps that display own-ship position—from Jeppesen, which develops its own data for its Mobile FliteDeck app, to Avilution, ForeFlight Mobile, FlyQ, Garmin Pilot, Hilton Software WingX Pro7 and even a free advertiser-supported app, FltPlan Go. All sorts of devices from Apple iPods, iPhones and iPads to Android phones and tablets are supported. Jeppesen is even planning a version of FliteDeck for Microsoft’s Surface tablet.
The advent of this technology is not just for light aircraft pilots but has also been adopted incredibly quickly by business aircraft and airline operators. Companies such as flyTab have even figured out how to provide an FAA-legal moving-map display using Apple iPads driven by an approved aircraft-mounted data source.
The rapid switch to tablet computers in cockpits has upended the market for traditional electronic flight bags (EFBs) and the short-lived market for dedicated chart display systems, but that is one of the unfortunate prices of progress. Today’s smart devices are so capable and so easy for developers to write software for that EFBs—at 10 to 20 times the price—simply can’t compete.
The only fly in this ointment is the FAA’s plan to raise data prices for app developers. Pilots are buying many fewer paper charts, and app developers aren’t replacing that revenue with the entirely reasonable fees they pay for AeroNav data. The FAA wants to extract more from the app developers—and ultimately that means us consumers—to make up the revenue shortfall, but this is a case where the FAA might want to reconsider.
In fact, there is a simple way for the FAA to make up the difference without adding to the costs for app developers. Instead of raising prices for data, which would have to be on the order of roughly $100 per user (not per developer), the FAA could use this opportunity to come up with its own universal database for avionics systems.
One of the big problems with modern avionics is that each navigation device runs its own copy of a database, and with multiple boxes in an airplane, owners face huge costs in keeping their databases current. One owner of a relatively simple airplane, a Diamond DA40, complained to me how much he has to pay to keep four separate databases current.
If the FAA could offer a low-cost universal database that contains basic VFR and IFR data, this would allow pilots to remain legal at a reasonable cost. Avionics manufacturers and commercial database providers could offer add-on products to the universal database—such as terrain, enhanced airspace displays and so on—and that way these companies could still have a product to sell to their customers. But at the same time, the FAA would have a better opportunity to bring in the revenues needed to keep the AeroNav Products Division healthy so the talented mapmakers there can turn out more of their beautiful charts.