The FAA’s AeroNav division held a meeting in Washington, D.C., this week to which it invited around 70 prominent players in the app developer community. Specifically excluded from the event were the public and the press — Flying and at least one other aviation news outlet requested to attend and were turned down.
The ostensible purpose of the meeting, according to sources who asked not to be identified, was to gather industry input on AeroNav’s plan to raise fees for its data. Currently the data is essentially free to developers and even end users.
At the same time, the FAA organization put forth a plan to charge end users — pilots — $150 a year for the data. AeroNav said it has a $5 million budget shortfall this year that it is trying to fill, and the $150 per user fee was calculated based on 33,000 users, which one developer called a laughably low number. “It would have taken two phone calls to figure out the approximate number of users there actually were,” one app developer told us, “calling into question the quality of AeroNav’s preparations for the plan.”
It was not clear, according to one source, whether the $150 fee was a firm figure or if AeroNav was floating that number to gauge industry response. Few of the developers we spoke with — all of them asked that their names not be used for this story — thought the $150 fee would be the final figure; most thought it would be less but that it will be something.
One other plan floated was a flat fee, whereby developers would pay a fee based on the number of end users they sell to. Using the figures the FAA floated for this, the cost to pilots would in many cases be much less than $150, probably more in the $50 per year range. This approach would also avoid the frightening prospect, as one meeting attendee put it, “of the FAA having 500,000 pilots and their credit card information in its database” or the customer support experience that structure would subject pilots to.
There are many questions that remain unanswered, in part because AeroNav has declined to respond to press inquiries on the subject. Flying submitted a series of questions to the division’s business development head three weeks ago through the press office and has not had a response.
Among the questions are, will users who buy multiple apps have to purchase the data anew for each? Will developers who distribute chart images on an irregular basis, such as AirNav, the airport resource, be required to charge each viewer $150? (That is unlikely; one possible solution is to let websites use non-downloadable screen shots.) How would this all be administered and how much will that cost? Will fees change over time to cover AeroNav’s needs?
But perhaps the biggest unanswered question is, how is AeroNav reconciling the law that requires it to charge only for dissemination of its data and not for its gathering with the new pricing plan? It was also declined to share details of its budget allocation and what expenditures that allocation covers.
Another developer told Flying that the meeting seemed intended to get industry to voluntarily adopt the new fee structure, to immunize AeroNav from responsibility for the revenue plan.
One date that AeroNav stuck by was April 15, 2012, the day on which it insists there will be no more free data. A developer we spoke with called the timeline “unrealistic.” Another said the proposed timeline “would be both irresponsible and a world speed record for government action if that really happened.”
We probably don’t have to point out the significance of the date, either, April 15, Tax Day, when the new charges are planned to start kicking in. The first pay cycle and the attendant price increases presumably would come following that date.