AeroNav's Epic Fail: Blame it on Steve Jobs
The FAA's AeroNav division held a meeting the other day for 70-some aviation app developers about its "plan" to launch a fee-based data dissemination system. Currently, app developers, and the general public for that matter, can get AeroNav's nav data for free.
AeroNav, however, is stuck between a rock and some high terrain as it tries somehow to navigate the digital age, which was brought home to them 30 years down the road by the explosion of iPad chart reader apps. Blame it on Steve Jobs if you will, but pilots are leaving AeroNav's paper charts and binders in droves for iPads, in part because of the price. This is, it occurs to me, the very essence of disruptive technology, and AeroNav is the dinosaur being disrupted.
It wishes it could simply charge for data as it sees fit, but there are any number of good reasons it can't; the foremost is regulatory.
By law it can only charge for the costs involved in disseminating (mailing DVDs, servers, and such) the data, and for "compiling" it. With the cost of disseminating the data being minimal and no one quite sure what compiling needs to be done in order to be charged for, it leaves AeroNav at a loss for how to charge for a product it's not supposed to charge for. One develper told me that AeroNav is trying to parse the meaning of the word "compilation" in order to justify the fee plan.
You have to give these people credit: they're knocking themselves out trying and failing. They rolled out the plan by surprise by without notice cutting off access to hundreds of developers. They refuse to talk to the media about what they're doing, why they're doing it or how much it will cost. They throw up smokescreens about safety and product control when they have to know that easy access to charts that iPad apps afford means a huge overall increase in safety of flight. Then when they finally announce pricing, they do it with a plan that's ill thought out and based on faulty numbers.
I wish that AeroNav had just come clean from the start and told their bosses, "Look, the digital age has changed our entire business model. We can't give away paper charts any more. Help." Maybe the way they are allowed to collect fees is outdated. Maybe they need to develop a plan to raise revenue by getting fees from pilot-users. All of that is fair, and something could have been done.
In the end, that's what we'll likely get, too. When we buy ForeFlight or WingX Pro or Pilot MyCast or any one of a number of iPad apps out there, we're likely to pay an extra $50 or so toward AeroNav's continuing fine work at gathering data and crafting it into charts. I don't know about you, but I'll be writing that check with a good deal of animosity in my heart for the agency that has done such a ham-handed job of handling what could have been and should have been a straightforward transition to a much-needed fee restructuring. Shame on them.
By all accounts, the meeting that AeroNav conducted on Tuesday at its Washington, D.C. offices was about what we'd expected it to be. I say "by all accounts" because we weren’t invited to attend. The business head of AeroNav, Abigail Smith, in fact, wouldn't return my phone calls or answer questions submitted by email to her through the FAA's press office. So I can only go by third person accounts. Why they would prevent the press from attending defies me. Do they think they're making friends? Do they think we're not going to talk to those who attended and get the worst possible take on the proceedings from the most disaffected of them? And who exactly do they think they work for, anyway? The public has a right to know what's going on. It strikes me as heavy handed, at best, that they're trying to keep the proceedings away from the public eye. Not to mention naive. Social media is changing the way the public, here and in the Middle East, get at the truth. Have they not been watching the news?
Maybe I should drop them a note. There are apps for keeping abreast of such things. Free ones, at that.
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