AINsight: ADS-B Shout-Out

 - April 18, 2019, 10:51 AM

With just eight and half months left before the deadline for ADS-B Out takes effect in the U.S., Father Time is steadily approaching for thousands of turbine-powered business and general aviation aircraft in the U.S. fleet. Often depicted as an elderly man with wings, this symbol of the one-way march of time ironically looks set to participate in the grounding of a wide array of aircraft representing most manufacturers and aircraft size categories. While few believe that the looming ADS-B Out compliance deadline will be extended beyond Dec. 31, 2019, we will no doubt begin hearing more and more cries for help as the Grim Reaper approaches, aluminum-cutting scythe firmly in hand. 

I am intrigued by the countless creative uses for out-of-service aircraft parts and pieces that seem to be as abundant as spring flowers, or weeds, depending on your perspective. I see flowers. A sizeable proportion of aircraft that will be coming out of service are truly timed-out, whether from maintenance status perspective, poor storage and pickling procedures, or economic obsolescence.

A handful of 1960s, '70s and, even ‘80s-era aircraft will survive the industry’s aircraft boneyards, remaining the apples of the eyes of their infatuated owners. Flown around the patch in search of the proverbial $1,000 burger and only on the occasional CAVU Sunday, if at all, these antiques will join the likes of the red Staggerwings, turbine-conversion Beech 18s, and the occasional straight-tailed Cessna 310 as true classics for the ages.

Surprisingly—at least to me—is the size of the non-compliant fleet of aircraft that most observers would consider among today’s business and general aviation workhorses. While many professionally managed flight departments; private, charter, and fractional operations; and aircraft management companies are already at a high or complete stage of ADS-B Out compliance, the size and mix of the fleet that will not be permitted in the National Airspace System (NAS) when the next New Year’s bell tolls are, well, staggering.

With 350,000 to 400,000 FAA-controlled takeoffs and landings each month for business jets alone, we should expect a step-down in flight operations as aircraft owners/operators come to the realization that they probably should have called their friendly neighborhood maintenance, repair, and overhaul (MRO) shop months before to get in line for the necessary equipment upgrades. While MRO capacity still exists across the industry for late-hour shoppers, there is a looming gap between supply and demand that, if I remember my Economics 101 class, does not look to work in favor of the shopper when it comes to who has the pricing and scheduling power in the negotiation.

Why anyone would buy a noncompliant new or preowned model at this stage of the game is a matter for intense speculation in the bars and taverns that many industry folks are known to occasionally frequent. According to the FAA’s Equip 2020 draft report to Congress, just 54 percent of the U.S. turbine-powered general aviation fleet was ADS-B Out compliant as of the beginning of March, with a monthly rate of change that doesn’t come close to bridging the gap before that guy with the scythe is due to arrive. Fully 20 percent of North American fixed-wing turbine owners and operators who responded to JetNet iQ’s Q4 2018 Survey did not strongly agree with the statement that all of their aircraft would be ADS-B Out compliant by December 31. That represents thousands of airplanes!

FlightAware, the Houston-based flight tracking services provider with more than 22,000 ADS-B tracking sites worldwide, reported that only 67 percent of N-numbered turbine business and general aviation aircraft they tracked in February were compliant. These represented just half of the active worldwide U.S.-registered fleet, according to JetNet records. Among the fleet leaders—or, better yet, laggards—in compliance are some models that can be seen coming and going each day at an airport near you. These include about 1,000 popular turboprops—Pilatus PC-12, King Air C90/250 /350, and Cessna 208 Caravan—as well as about 200 each of Citation Excel/XLS, Hawker 800, Citation V, Gulfstream GIV/IV-SP, and Challenger 600-series jets, and about 175 each of Beechjet and Challenger 300 aircraft. Staggerwings? Umm, no—more like staggering.

While a large number of owners and operators have become increasingly comfortable flying older aircraft in the residual value swoon that occurred post-2008 financial crisis, many could be sitting in their ultra-quiet cabins with zero-carbon emissions, searching for an internet signal and the FAA’s website and contact information, after December 31. Alternatively, they can seek a one-way, one-time ferry permit to bring their flightless bird to an MRO or call an OEM to ask about delivery positions for a new aircraft. As likely as not, they will have to come to terms with the fact that they are, indeed, the very last owner of a piece of aviation history.