The End of Cheap iPad Charting Apps? Safety at Issue?

FAA plans to charge for data but won’t say how much.

iPad Big

iPad Big

You might have heard by now that the FAA’s AeroNav division, in charge of, among other things, keeping track of all the data that defines our National Airspace System, has decided to start charging for that online data, which it formerly gave away. The FAA has not released the details of that plan to the public. It will hold a meeting among stakeholders in mid-December in Washington, D.C., presumably to reveal its plan.

Details of how the program evolved, however, raise numerous troubling questions about the FAA’s probable readiness with a workable plan.

In recent years, AeroNav data has been the catalyst for a uniquely American success story, as its free, easy availability has enabled the creation of a cottage industry of companies that create iPad applications, including ForeFlight and Hilton Software, as well as giving established companies, like Garmin and Jeppesen, a new market to explore. Most of these apps range from $75 to around $150 per year, figuring in the cost of subscriptions. In addition, firms like Seattle Avionics have established businesses massaging and distributing that data; yet others, like Baron Services, make sensors for iPads to allow app users to get more utility out of their apps.

The business plans of each of these companies is up in the air awaiting the details of the plan.

Surprise Launch

The FAA’s scheme began to unfold late last summer when the computers of several app developers came up empty on what should have been a routine automated overnight data refresh. It was only when developers contacted the FAA that they learned that there was a plan to change the way that AeroNav data was disseminated.

The FAA, after speaking with these greatly concerned app developers, relented and made the data available in time for developers to get it to their customers. The FAA has continued to do so while still offering that it has a plan to charge for data.

Regardless of its quick backtrack, insiders find it shocking that the FAA would have attempted such a poorly thought-out launch of its plan without prior communication with app developers and others in the industry. It was, after all, a move that potentially could have affected safety of flight for thousands of pilots and their passengers.

Very little seemed thought out about the new direction, conceived in the wake of the furlough of FAA employees ealier this year. The original plan, now presumably abandoned, called for new AeroNav data to be available only 24 hours before a refresh cycle, which would have made it impossible for app developers to get products to their customers before their previous charts had expired.

No one seems to know the details of that plan. When we asked for comment on the current state of affairs, a Jeppesen spokesman responded that, “Since we do not know what the potential changes may be or what any effects could be, we won’t be able to discuss it until we learn more following the Dec. 13 FAA AeroNav meeting in Washington, D.C.” Six months after the first sign that the FAA has a new plan, just what that plan is remains a mystery.

Why?

The plan has unfolded apparently in response to an FAA budget crunch. One insider was told by an AeroNav employee that the decision to charge for data came about in response to low revenue from what had traditionally been an FAA cash cow, the sale of paper charts. The employee suggested that it was known within the FAA that the lost sales were a result of pilots getting their charts on their iPads, as opposed to in paper format from the FAA.

The plan to charge for that data is being spearheaded by the FAA’s Abigail Smith, who is in charge of business development for AeroNav. Smith did not respond for a request for an interview in time to comment for this story.

Regardless, how the plan to implement charges was launched seems to indicate a lack of concern on the part of the FAA for the businesses that depend on the data and their customers who consume it. It came about without warning and in a way that suggests that the FAA had not carefully thought out the details of the plan, its ramifications or the effect it would have on safety. The agency, according to one vendor with whom we spoke, hasn't carefully considered such questions as who would be charged for data and how those charges would be determined. Would a website, like Runwayfinder.com, for example, be required to pay the same rate for the data as a company that specifically provided charts to be used offline? Would a website like AirNav.com, which uses AeroNav charts on its online airport directory, be charged? Would AOPA? Would Flying magazine? And how would AeroNav structure the plan, by a flat fee or for each visitor who clicked on the data? And how would those charges be tracked and accounted for?

Safety Connection?

The FAA seems to be linking this change in policy with safety, though the connection seems tenuous. The argument that the FAA seems to be making is that it wants to have control over how the data it disseminates is used by app developers and others. Indeed, the FAA has come right out and said this in an email announcing the new direction. But just how the agency plans to monitor the way developers use the data is unknown. Would there be a set of standards created for apps like Jeppesen Mobile FD or Hilton Software's WingX Pro? Would AeroNav then monitor compliance? And how would it find the resources to do that?

Issues

The move also raises some thorny philosophical and political issues, as well. While a government agency is allowed to produce a product that it then turns around and sells to users, there's an exception in law for AeroNav. According to federal legislation, the FAA is prohibited from collecting money for its database products in order to recover costs associated with the collectiing of that areonautical data. So if AeroNav raises prices, and it seems determined to do just that, it would have to justify that the increases are to recover the cost of managing the database, compiling it and serving that data to users. Technically, any other charges would be prohibited.

Whether the FAA understands that is uncertain. Come Dec. 13, we’ll hopefully have more information on the plan and how much it will cost pilots.