November 23, 2011

A recent announcement that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) will soon charge users to download aeronautical charts was met with strong dissent within the aviation community. Pilots and app developers may see the move as yet another means for the agency to separate pilots from their wallets, but the FAA maintains the change is necessary to preserve the safety and integrity of vital aeronautical information.

Effective April 5, 2012, the FAA’s Aeronautical Navigation Products (AeroNav) will require anyone downloading charts to have a contract with the agency, but FAA spokesperson Paul Takemoto asserted most AeroNav offerings will continue as before. “For many users, the way things are now is pretty much the way they will be after April 5,” he explained. “You will still be able to view AeroNav products for free on the FAA web site, but downloads will need to be done through AeroNav or a digital distributor. Those distributors will be required to have an agreement, to maintain integrity of product.”

Alas, those agreements will come at a price – and what those prices will be hasn’t been announced yet – but Takemoto stressed the agency has no profit motive. “Congress requires us to gather our costs, which include database management, compiling the charts, and printing and dissemination,” he said. “Those agreements will also prevent alterations to downloaded charts. As of now, if someone downloads then changes the information presented, we don’t know how to correct that, or even who to go to.”

Regardless of the agency’s reasons for the change, the news surprised many pilots and other users, as well as the developers of several flight-planning applications that use information from AeroNav. It is also not yet known how the FAA’s policy shift may affect providers of free online sectional charts and other products, such as SkyVector and

“We had not anticipated a change, as it’s not typical for the government to provide free services – the GPS system, for example – that help create jobs and innovation, then remove or limit access to those same services,” said Tyson Weihs, co-founder and principal developer at ForeFlight.

Hilton Goldstein, developer of WingX Pro software for pilots, added he was unaware of any change in AeroNav’s distribution structure until he received an invitation to a December 13 industry meeting with the agency. That notice contained no specific information, Goldstein added, but rather “words about ‘agreements’ and ‘pricing structure.’” NBAA will also be participating in the meeting to ensure that business aviation interests are represented.

Despite the stern tone of those meeting notices, Takemoto said the agency’s plans are not set in stone. “The December 13 meeting is to review contract terms with distributors,” he said, “and we will be open to comments.”

ForeFlight’s Weihs indicated the FAA may indeed expect vocal opposition to the plan. “AeroNav Services has not provided sufficient information to our industry to determine if ForeFlight [or other app providers] would have to raise prices after April 5, 2012, to provide access to products produced by AeroNav,” he stated. “That said, if the user fees AeroNav reveals during the planned December 13, 2011, ‘digital chart agent’ meeting are too high for ForeFlight to absorb, we would have to consider raising prices come April.”

Still, Weihs offered measured optimism that a compromise may ultimately be reached. “We are in contact with AeroNav and providing feedback that we are optimistic will lead to a reasonable solution,” he concluded.