ADS-B Compliance Accelerates, but Will It Be Enough?

 - March 18, 2019, 4:57 PM
ADS-B equipage rates for business aircraft are growing, but industry observers say maintenance shop slot limitations will prevent 100 percent compliance by the FAA's Jan. 1, 2020 deadline for ADS-B Out. (Photo: Harris Corp.)

After years of expressing concern about lagging equipage rates for the 2020 ADS-B mandate in the U.S., General Aviation Manufacturers Association president and CEO Pete Bunce recently gave a reason for optimism. Equipage rates had jumped significantly on the fixed-wing front, he reported and said, “We’re tracking very well.”

But at the same time, Bunce highlighted continued concerns about rotorcraft equipage, which, at just 30 percent equipped in February, has been well behind fixed-wing. And industry leaders point to pockets of fixed-wing fleets—particularly older, legacy aircraft—that have much slower equipage rates. This reinforces the concern that come Jan. 1, 2020, aircraft may be sidelined.

As of February 1, more than 73,000 U.S.-registered aircraft were equipped out of a target of 100,000 that fly in the controlled airspace where ADS-B will be required, GAMA reported during its State of the Industry event in February. That number was approaching 76,000 a month later.

More than half of the piston side is now equipped, Bunce had reported, and are continuing to equip at a rate of about 1,000 aircraft a month. This was comparable to equipage rates when transponders were required. “

Turboprops have remained on track, while business jets also have picked up the pace. He estimated that in February 63 percent of business jets that fly in the system were equipped, and equipage has been continuing at a rate of about 500 aircraft a month. At this rate, he said, “We will be in good shape.”

“The last three months are continuing to improve each month with respect to equipage rates,” added Jens Hennig, v-p of operations for GAMA, noting equipage rates for this past December, January, and February were the highest since the FAA began tracking in 2014. In February alone, a record 2,583 aircraft were equipped. “If the current rate simply continues, approximately 100,000 aircraft will be ADS-B compliant when the mandate enters into effect on January 1, 2020,” Hennig added, noting this is in line with FAA estimates from the Equip 2020 kickoff meeting in 2014.

On the piston side, rebates are having an effect. According to FAA data, 6,040 aircraft owners had made a reservation by early March for the restarted $500 ADS-B incentive rebate program and 2,228 had received a check following installation and validation flight.

When the RVSM mandate took effect, the industry was just at 80 percent equipage. The ADS-B is “on a good track, comparatively,” Hennig said.

Some Segments Lag

While satisfied with the pick-up in fixed-wing rates, he said, “There is plenty of work to be done over the next nine and a half months. The mandate stands and operators flying in ADS-B airspace need to be compliant.”

The worry spot remains the rotorcraft segment, Bunce said, noting that equipage is occurring at about 100 per month. GAMA, working with Helicopter Association International, has been making a big push to impress upon operators the need to equip.

“I don’t see the rate of equipage that we would have liked,” HAI president and CEO Matt Zuccaro agreed during last month’s Heli-Expo. "There are a couple of things that I think people have misconceptions on.” He explained that the FAA has made it clear that there will be no extension to its mandated deadline of Jan. 1, 2020. “So for all those out there hoping they will extend it, you had better go to Plan B.”

In addition, there has been an acknowledgment that the costs for upgrades may be dissuading owners of legacy fixed-wing aircraft from equipping, noted the National Air Transportation Association (NATA).

Flight-tracking service provider FlightAware has been monitoring installations, finding that the lowest among the equipages are legacy aircraft such as the Gulfstream III.

Heidi Williams, director of air traffic services and infrastructure for NBAA, agreed that some owners would weigh cost decisions. But she added that upgrade paths are now available for the vast majority of aircraft. A key issue is to ensure that the operator is properly educated on the mandate itself and what is available for compliance.

Zuccaro noted that in most cases, advances in products have dramatically reduced the cost of equipage since the mandate was announced, making the installation much more affordable on both the general aviation and commercial sides. “So if I was still operating, I would think long and hard about that decision to delay,” he said. “You are going to need it whether you like it or not, so I would say, 'equip.'”

Expect Shop Bottlenecks

A key issue for those who have delayed their installations is whether there will be enough equipment ready and technicians to install it in time to meet the deadline. “It’s like everybody is piling up against the wall that they are facing, and somebody is going to find out, ‘No, you can’t get it by the deadline, we don’t have that many people, and we don’t have the equipment in the shop to put it in,'” the HAI leader said.

NATA stressed that its repair station members have been actively working to ensure compliance. “While many facilities still have availability, aircraft owners should be aware that as we approach the 2020 deadline there may be a surge in last-minute demand for installations,” the association said.

David Paddock, senior v-p for U.S. regional operations for Jet Aviation, who spoke on a panel during the GAMA State of the Industry event, said that installations have definitely picked up the pace, but he reiterated warnings about shop availability as time draws closer to the deadline.

“If the owners and operators chose not to get the installs completed in a timely manner, it is not realistic that we would have unbound capacity,” said Ric Peri, vice president of government and industry affairs for the Aircraft Electronics Association.

Peri added, though, “It is nice to see the predicted uptick actually coming to fruition,” calling the uptick promising.

As for the shops, most are anticipating continuing installations well into 2020, and to be kept busy with other mandates and NextGen upgrades throughout that year.

Williams agreed with the general consensus that 100 percent compliance may not be likely by 2020. The FAA already has begun discussions on perhaps providing a pathway for those who can’t get shop space in a timely manner, she said. While it is uncertain what that may be, one possibility may be some sort of time-limited narrow exemption for a small number.

Such a topic was included on the next government/industry Equip 2020 meeting.

While details of such an effort surface, NBAA stresses that it will continue to work to ensure privacy protections are afforded to operators and that they will have access.

Despite the potential for a narrow exemption, Peri gave a warning on whether the equipage rates were adequate: “For those who chose to procrastinate, I suggest they won’t think so.”