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Dear FAA/Aeronav...


 Holy Hairballs - A Blog update!  Dayum it's been a while!

So, what the hell do I want to talk about?  Well, I want to expound for a bit on the FAA/AeroNav proposal to start charging for digital chart data. And, because this is my blog, I can!

Really everything I want to say can be said by an appropriate LOLCat:

Pleez don't take mah charts!


 For those of you not familiar with the problem (I'm going to guess that's most of my readers), AvWeb's blog has a great explanation, and ForeFlight's blog has some perspective from one of the compaines building on top of the AeroNav Chart Data.

To summarize briefly, the FAA's AeroNav division produces the charts that pilots rely on to get from point A to point B.  These charts include things like the locations of airports, boundaries of restricted airspace (military firing ranges, the area around The White House, etc.), locations of things like radio/TV towers, radio navigation data (location/frequencies of navaids), and lots of other stuff that's really useful if you're interested in flying around without (a) getting lost, or (b) crashing into something.
The AeroNav division operates under two seemingly contradictory guidelines:

  • AeroNav is not allowed to charge for the underlying data they use in making charts, BUT
  • AeroNav must recover the costs of producing and distributing the charts, and maintaining the databases they use for that purpose.

Until relatively recently AeroNav accomplished this by charging a few bucks per chart (VFR Sectional charts -- what most small-plane pilots are looking at when we plan flights - run from $8 to $15 depending on who you buy them from, and you have to update them periodically).  AeroNav has also been making this data available for free on the internet to pretty much anyone interested in grabbing it.  This has been GREAT for general avation pilots like me, and for companies like ForeFlight: We can get up-to-date chart data, including changes that happen between the normal publication cycles -- It makes for easier flight planning and ultimately safer flying.

Unfortunately for AeroNav a lot of people REALLY like the electronic data (and the applications that can use it) -- And we like it better than paper charts.  As a result, paper chart sales (and paper sales of other AeroNav products) are declining.
For example, one AeroNav publication - the Airport/Facilities Directory - is a book (actually 7 of them) updated every 56 days.  Every airport in the nation is listed, with damn near anything a pilot could want to know about it (Does it have fuel? What kinds? What hours is it open? How long are the runways? etc.).  These books are the perfect inconvenient size (bulky enough that they take up room in a flight bag, small enough that you can lose 'em pretty easily if you're scatterbrained like me), and you wouldn't want to try to leaf through one in flight.  When I first started taking flight lessons we had to fork over $6 per book every 56 days -- $40/year if your flying keeps you in an area covered by one book, or $280/year if you're a corporate pilot who needs the whole set.  ForeFlight includes the A/FD as part of my subscription, I can search it in the air quickly, and it doesn't take up any extra room, so I no longer carry the paper A/FD*

What this all means for AeroNavis that they're not making as much money as they used to.  They're also spending money on this digital distribution (Bandwidth Isn't Free!), and they still have to do all the work of compiling their data into a useful form.  So, logically, they're looking for a way to charge the users for the product. And I'm ABSOLUTELY OK WITH THAT -- The AeroNav folks do an unbelievable job keeping up with the constant changes to the airspace system (and the ground under it), and I damn well want them FULLY FUNDED and doing that work so I don't have a close encounter with a big giant antenna one day (or any number of other horrible things that can happen if you're using obsolete charts).
What I'm not OK with is the Batshit-Brand Crazy way they're going about it -- Super-Kerspensive prices for the "little guy" companies like ForeFlight while big-players like Jeppesen get sweetheart deals, and denying access to individuals at any price.  Simply put, ANY citizen should be able to go online, pay a nominal fee that covers AeroNav's overhead, and dowload ANY AeroNav publication they want, at cost.
Why? Well two reasons -- First, most of the data AeroNav is using comes from programs funded by our tax dollars (and a lot of the rest comes from pilots calling in and saying "Hey I almost hit this antenna that's not on the charts - Ya might want to fix that!"), but also because you can do that RIGHT FUCKING NOW with the paper charts (Really. They're on freakin'! Buy some if ya want to help support AeroNav – they make wonderful wallpaper!).

My fear? That AeroNav's new digital pricing structure will force pilots back into the paper world.  We'll no longer have the entire aeronautical world at our fingertips, we won't get the inter-cycle updates about that new radio tower anywhere near as quickly as we do with the digital products, and even though most folks I know have paper chart subscriptions automatically mailed to us it's frankly not as good as having the chart data update itself every time you go to plan a flight.


And so this blog entry, with all of its rambling and linkage and its little lolcat, is my plea to the FAA's AeroNav division, and the powers that control the pricing:

Please don't take my (digital) charts away!

...and, ya know, keep making the paper ones too. I like having them around as a backup and, well,  I could really use some new wallpaper!


* - Like lots of other people I know, I write down all the information I expect to need -- Just in case my magical iPad dies, and I carry the essential paper charts as a backup too.


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