Washington Report: digital charts no longer free?

iPad chart app
Are iPad app prices going up soon?

The iPad has taken aviation by storm over the past few years, with pilots of Cubs and Gulfstreams alike using Apple’s tablet for pre-flight planning, charts and even in-flight weather. One of the most popular features of the iPad is how easy and affordable it is to always have current charts on board–no more dreaded Jeppesen update sessions or $1000/year subscriptions. For under $100, pilots can have every chart in the US, and update it with the tap of a button.

The ease of use and good value has led to a growing market for aviation apps, one of the bright spots in an otherwise weak market. But the FAA seems to think all these apps are a threat to their paper chart business, and are thus making noises about charging for the charting data that has been free for the past decade. Beginning late last year, AeroNav (the FAA group that produces and manages aviation chart data) started warning app developers that previously free data was going away unless these developers signed agreements and began paying on a per-user basis. The plan was supposed to be enacted this past Spring, but was delayed due to lobbying by some aviation app developers that resulted in Congressional action. The FAA is still intent on imposing these charges, though, and further action is expected this fall.

So the debate continues:

  • AeroNav claims they have a $5 million funding gap to close, and need to make money off digital charts to offset the decline in paper chart sales. Prices have not been set, but $75-150 per user seems to be a common number. The agency has also made some claims about improving safety by having specific developer agreements, although what exactly this means is unclear.
  • App developers retort that AeroNav is trying to institute a user fee instead of cutting costs, which could stifle innovation and lead to pilots flying with less current charts. There are also some fairly significant restrictions about what costs AeroNav is legally allowed to recover, which may be an issue.

While the wheels of policy turn, we’d like to know your opinion. Is the FAA’s plan to charge for digital charts a necessary reaction to a changing market or a new and unneeded user fee that will hurt a vibrant industry? If your annual app subscription doubled in cost, would that impact the way you fly?

43 Comments

  • Whatever AeroNav eventually does, I hope that they create a delivery system that covers the needs of all pilots.

    I currently get all the digital sectionals for free(http://aeronav.faa.gov/index.asp?xml=aeronav/applications/VFR/chartlist_sect). If I was put in a situation where I had to pay, I would only really need to buy 1 sectional chart every 6 months, plus perhaps another 1-2 if I take a long cross-country flight.

    If Aeronav doesn’t create an ala carte system for buying digital charts, then the segment of the pilot community that uses their planes mostly for short VFR flights ($100 hamburger runs, pancake breakfasts, etc.) will be very tempted to fly with old data. This would go against the FAA’s prime directive: “to provide the safest, most efficient aerospace system in the world.”

  • I don’t know why it is so hard to understand that nothing is “free”. Just because your cell phone is capable of downloading a chart doesn’t eliminate the cost of making it. If people were willing to pay for a paper chart before the invention of computers, what has changed? A cost reduction could be made due to more efficient distribution and no printing costs, but the big bear in the shop is still the intellectual data and that cannot be inconsiderable. The cost reduction should be celebrated as a benefit of modern technology and taken advantage of, but “free”; I don’t think so.

    • You make a valid point here, Stephen. But I’m suspicious for a couple of reasons. First, we do pay for these charts–it’s called taxes. The data that the FAA has in the form of charts is public use data and is there to serve the public good. Second, reading more about what they can and can’t charge for (link in the article) raises some questions. The intent is obvious (to me): the FAA can recover the costs of printing and shipping paper charts, but not the cost to create new charts.

      I don’t doubt that paper chart sales are down, but it sure seems like the FAA is playing with the numbers here. It’s not a for-profit business.

      • Martin has it right. We already pay for this in taxes. This is what deregulation and no tax increases does for us. Now public agencies outsource what was their job because of no funding from Congress – what used to be a tax paid public safety issue is now a for-profit by a business and the public safety suffers.
        In short, private corporations taking over what used to be things for the public good, public data. Does anyone put together that paper sales are down because the pilot population is disappearing due to high costs?

        • I disagree that AeroNav is funded by the general tax fund. By law, they must cover their expenses with user generated fees which in the past were primarily paper charts fees. They got into trouble by giving away the digital version using the classic mistake that the digital production cost was zero. Now that the pilot population has shifted toward digital they are in trouble and have no room to maneuver.

          Jeppesen uses that same primary data that AeroNav does and creates their own charts. This primary data is funded by our taxes. Neither one pay for this data. Jeppesen has a perceived higher mark up on their product which would be reduced if AeroNav really charged for their digital maps even at cost. And then we have the well documented problem that AeroNav’s product is more frequently flawed than Jeppesen’s.

      • Well, it’s a whole ‘nuther discussion when you talk about rationalizing taxes with public benefit and that won’t be resolved in our lifetime. On the one hand I could argue that giving me a free VFR chart benefits the public because I will know where the class B airspace is and I will be less likely to hit an airliner with the public in it; and since the FAA mandates that I have a current chart, maybe it should be free. On the other hand, I could carry it further and say maybe they should give me a free airplane so I don’t have to fly over the public’s heads in my ole crate ’cause I can’t afford a new one. Where do you stop and what is reasonable? I think the value of the charts is a reasonable cost of flying; particularly compared to the alternative Rand-McNally road maps that used to be used.

      • Yes, Martin, you are correct !!

        However, with the current Admistration, we can only expect a screwed up system – large increase in cost –
        and the other miss-management we have had to endure for the last three years.
        Give them an inch, they will take a mile.

  • Pilots seem to accept that updates to their navigation systems’ electronic maps do – and should – cost money. Why would charts be any different?

    Truth is, the very idea of side-by-side display of a chart and a moving map is silly. The chart (such as it is) should be displayed overlaid onto the moving map. Think about it – all of this technology brought into our cockpits, and we’re still relying upon a mental overlay of two separate pieces of information? It’s nuts.

    All that needs to be displayed is:
    1. Allowable flight paths
    2. Possible flight paths (your a/c at its present energy level)
    3. Desired flight paths
    4. Your actual flight path (with predictive “look-ahead”)

    All of this is easy to do with the existing technology and equipment infrastructure. But nobody who supplies us with this wonderment can afford to work for free. Nor should they. Nothing is free of cost. But plenty of people couldn’t care less about the cost, as long as the PRICE is acceptable to them. Which oftentimes means… “free.”

    Now, we can argue about methods of product-distribution, and methods of cost-collection. NEXGEN offers the promise of zero-price (albeit not cost-free) distribution of weather and traffic information. The same paradigm certainly could be applied to chart/map data. It could be broadcast OTA, for downloading before – and during – each flight. (Who among us wouldn’t like to have access to real-time updates of TFRs?)

    But we need to face one fact: none of this is without cost, and so it’s unrealistic to expect that it will be without price.

  • “making noises about charging for the charting data” ….they already do charge for it.. TAXES people. Our government collects enough (too much) money from me already. If they can’t make it work with what they have, time to do LESS. Less charts, less approaches, less control towers. DOWNSIZE it if you can’t pay for it. This is more evidence that government is way too big right now.

  • The free lunch is over. Politicians of all kinds say that we must lower taxes, reduce spending, balance the budget, and reduce the deficit. Most folks would agree this is a grand idea. However, to pull off this miracle will require massive changes to government operations as we know them. I always paid for paper charts. I am willing to pay for electronic charts, particularly if they are less expensive than the paper they replace. I think that the idea of TAXES paying for services provided to a relatively small percentage of the population is difficult to justify.

    This whole economic issue is going to be with us and our descendants for a very long time. I do not expect any kind of solution in my remaining years. I have already told my children and grandchildren that I’m sorry that we were part of the problem rather than the solution.

    • I totally agree. I pay for paper charts without hesitation – and I am the stereotypical $100 hamburger pilot. I have no problem paying a similar fee for electronic charts. One cannot complain about high taxes and then demand “free” services.

      • Really Bob, tell me where the millions of surplus money goes from the aviation user tax that was implemented more than 20 years ago. Do some research, each year there has been a surplus and then it disappears for other non-aviation uses. The FAA is not giving us free charts now, we have paid for them through aviation taxes. Now they just want to double tax us.

    • The Government is full of useless agencies that are there because Politicians have to pay off Election debts, by creating jobs for their cronies who help them get elected. or by campain Donations, Or call it what is really is “bribes” get rid of all these agencies. and we could lower the national debt.

  • As a comparison, how are Jepp’s charges compared to AeroNav’s? Secondly, if the “user fees” for charts are wrong are the user fees for National Parks also wrong.

    Kindly clarify why should the general public support our flying through taxes?

    • I don’t think they’re supporting “our flying.” These charts are made for the military, the airlines and lots of others. I’m sure GA is not what they have in mind when they draw up these charts.

      To me, if we’re against ATC user fees, we should be against this. Seems like exactly the same issue. Why give a government agency control over how much money they bring in?

  • Obama has wrecked the nation’s economy and put the nation MUCH further down the road to bankruptcy. Hopefully, ObamaTAX will not become a reality ’cause it Will finish the job for sure. So “user fee” increase it MUST certainly be for sure, accordingly.

  • I would be willing to pay for the production cost of the charts if I could select which ones I want and when I wanted them. The electronic charts eliminate the need for printing and distribution and the associated cost.

    Think about this when we pay ForeFlight, WingX, AnywhereMap, and all the other app producers about $150 for updated data. I’d rather pay the app producers XX dollars for their app, and nothing for data updates, with that going to whoever produces the charts (the Charting Office). Sure, the app might cost $10 or $20 dollars, but the update cost would go where it belongs, to one who does the work. Sure, some changes must be made that all the app producers would have to work with a common standard to accomodate the data, but you know they are already doing that for the majority of the data now.

  • Airports are supported by FAA. Why do commercial flights pay landing fees?
    When I started flying, I was awed by the ‘free’ services like Weather Briefing, extensive hand holding by ATC for most of my flights, the airports available almost anywhere in the country. Do pilots think about what fraction of the general public use these facilities?
    “I pay taxes” is the refrain from many people who also say ‘Tax not me but the guy behind that tree!”
    Why would the price of a gallon of avgas be too much to pay for every flight you take to continue to enjoy these great services?
    Why should the software developers complain when the free (from FAA) digital data is sold to subscribers at more than $100 a year?

  • The FAA and the Government are not bitter that we aren’t buying paper charts, but that postal workers aren’t delivering them. They will find a way to tax emails soon.

  • Charging for electronic charts is one step closer to a European system. Next ATC will ask for my credit card for a landing clearance.

  • Last time I checked, there was no copyright in government documents. So once anyone gets a federal nav chart, he or she may digitize it, reprint it, make it available online, etc. The FAA could make this slightly more difficult by refusing to make their data files available (though I wonder of the Freedom of Information Act would apply). To be sure, the FAA could recoup these costs through an annual charge to “renew” or “update” one’s pilot’s license or medical, or the much-dreaded fee to land your airplane, but I honestly don’t see how, for example, they could prevent Foreflight from continuing to make sectionals available as part of the underlying service. IMHO, the FAA is barking up the wrong tree. Maybe if Congress gave them adequate funding to run a truly safe system available to everyone — but I’m dreaming.

    • You truly are dreaming, Alan. Regardless of who wins the White House, I think we are going to see a significant effort to downsize the Federal Government. No politician, regardless of brand, will use the dreaded TAX word except to say they want to eliminate them. Everything now is a “fee” which is accepted by the masses because they don’t recognize a TAX by another name. I expect the funding of many agencies is going to decrease and their revenue needs are going to continue to come from increasing “fees”.

      • Anytime the Government want’s more money they figure who would it hert the most. and raise their taxes or fee’s

  • Everyone is talking cost here but missing the biggest worry that the FAA will “select” a few winner companies to distribute charts thereby completely eliminating competition from little guys. I can already see Garmin & jeppesen lobbying the FAA so that foreflight & wingx go away.

    • You are right on, Ed. Lobbyists are thriving in Washington and political contributions from deep-pocket companies paves the way for eliminating the little guys.

  • I love seeing all these passionate comments. I just wish there was an Association for Aircraft Owners and Pilots that could fight these proposed user fees. AOPA: Where are you? This could be your big victory over user fees. Stop the pigs of Aeronav from becoming a for-profit operation. The FAA is only permitted to recoup expenses from printing and distribution. They are clearly overstepping their legal boundaries.

    • Tim:

      If indeed the FAA’s jurisdiction to recoup expenses is limited to “printing and distribution” of paper charts, the only logical outcome is ever-rising prices for such charts. Ultimately, a chart could cost north of $1,000, at (before) which point nobody would purchase them. So there would be no reason to print them. Problem solved? I don’t think so.

      Forgive me for sounding sarcastic, but I find much of this discussion to sound like argument about who should pay for typewriter repairs – in an age of word processors. Screw the printing and distribution. Put the “charts” online as downloadable PDFs. Then face the fact that it costs real money to generate and gather the data that underlies the “charts,” and that those costs have to be borne. I politely suggest that:
      1. Jeppesen et al are best able to pay for those costs.
      2. Jeppesen et al have no alternative sources for some of the data that they need (they don’t design the airspace or the procedures, after all).
      3. Jeppesen et al will price their products such that they make a profit.
      4. It very well may come down to Jeppesen and no “et al.” I wouldn’t be bothered by that, but if others are, then they have to face the incremental costs (or savings?) associated with a multi-vendor environment.

      Of course, over time, the embodiment of the data that the government sells to whomever will devolve into more primitive (less chart-like) forms. At some point, the “free” PDF offerings will fail to meet the standards for comprising what we all think of as “a chart.” Again, I’m not bothered by this, but others may be.

      I’ve concluded that Jeppesen et al can turn government-supplied de minimus raw data into desirable finished product (“charts”) better than and at a lower cost than the government can do it itself. I’ve also concluded that even accounting for Jeppesen’s “evil profits,” downloadable PDFs would have a lower price than traditional paper charts. Which rapidly are becoming obsolete, anyway.

  • It would only be reasonable for AeroNav to recoup the appropriate share of the cost of developing the data used by App users. We all have paid for paper charts in the past and I for one switched to using Foreflight in part because of the added safety of having the charts I need readily at hand and always up to date.

    Safety is the issue here. I am a Sport Pilot, recreational flyer. I fly regularly, but only occasionally across chart boundaries. Now I can rest assured that the GPS functions of my Ipad are synched with an up-to-date chart every time I fly. With the constant proliferation of cell and other towers as well as other changes I want to know that the FAA is providing me with that data through either electronic or paper products.

    For years now all facets of government and industry have touted the benefits of going digital and paperless. It would not be fair for the FAA to charge data users disproportionately in order to prop up their marketing of the paper charts.

  • Government does not have “profit centers”, it has “investment centers” and “service centers” Business has profit centers.

    I have no problem with government providing their services at cost; I have a strong concern if they are looking to make a profit. By definition – government serves constituents, and business sells goods and services to make profits.

  • What I haven’t seen in the comments yet is the true value of paper charts. They never lose power, are always available. I never fly without a current paper chart as a backup. It’s just intrinsic to pilot safety. No matter who determines that electronic copies are legal replacements…I would not put my life on the line with the hollow consolation that I am “legal”. I am surprised that there are pilots out there that do not carry current paper backups. My assumption has always been that paper would continue at the historic rate even as we use electronic versions as primary sources. I don’t want to criticize anyone but I would never, ever, fly without a paper backup so I’m having a hard time understanding why paper chart consumption is down, assuming it is not correlating to the drop in pilot population.

    • John:

      Paper charts are a fine backup to e-charts – presuming that you can fold them up into a paper aircraft and shoot an approach with them. I’m just trying to inject some purposeful humor into an observation that the likelihood that your e-chart capabilities will fail is no greater than the likelihood that your electronic navigation system will fail.

      What I’ve advocated in this space is the complete unification of “charts” and navigation systems. It’s easy to do, and it eliminates the need to overlay a chart and a map “in your head.”

      What do you use as a backup for your electronic navigation system? Probably a compass, a clock, and an altimeter. And a flashlight. All of that is equally useful with paper or e-charts.

      In a modern electronic aircraft, paper charts are about as useful as cables and bellcranks in a fly-by-wire aircraft. Users simply obtain a comfortable level of reliability via other measures (including but not limited to redundancy).

      • Roger that…I was speaking of my own comfort level of redundancy in the cockpit based on my circumstances and my surprise that some pilots have different comfort levels that I do. No argument from me, each pilot should be free to make his own decisions.

  • Since pilots seam to be the “end users” for all aviation products, we end up be targeted for every tax and cost increase that comes along.
    I bought gas at Oshkosh and it was $3.75 per gallon before taxes. After taxes it was $5.55.

    There are few young folks getting into aviation these days because of the cost. Mostly what you see is older pilots in aviation, and at our fly-in this past week-end pilots were talking about the very subject of rising cost of flying, from gas to hangers to parts and yes that now we’re going to be charged for something else that apears to be another tax or as we like to call them today, “user fees”. There ready to hang for sale signs on there airplanes and drag them out on the ramp.

    GA for fun is slowly being killed off. Our pilots are old, our airplains are old and we’re being taxed, and gouged to death.

    • Excerpted from the regulation:

      (g) SALE AND DISSEMINATION OF AERONAUTICAL
      PRODUCTS.—
      (1) IN GENERAL.—Aeronautical products created or maintained under the authority of this section shall be sold at prices established annually by the Administrator consistent with the following:
      (A) MAXIMUM PRICE.—Subject to subparagraph (B), the price of an aeronautical product sold to the public shall be not more than necessary to recover all costs attributable to:
      (i) data base management and processing;
      (ii) compilation;
      (iii) printing or other types of reproduction; and
      (iv) dissemination of the product.
      (B) ADJUSTMENT OF PRICE.—The Administrator shall adjust the price of an aeronautical product and service sold to the public as necessary to avoid any adverse impact on aviation safety attributable to the price specified under this paragraph.
      (C) COSTS ATTRIBUTABLE TO ACQUISITION OF AERONAUTICAL DATA.—A price established under this paragraph may not include costs attributable to the acquisition of aeronautical data.

      After multiple readings, I conclude that it’s defensible to assert that sections g.1.A.i and g.1.A.ii stand in apparent contradiction of section g.1.C. I say this because, unless the contents of a given database never change, “database management” inevitably includes appending, updating, and deleting data – which by definition both requires and comprises “acquisition” of data.

      Since “clear regulation” is an oxymoron in modern America, and since the regs basically were written to address the topic of paper charts, the topic of how much the government is permitted to charge various stakeholders is fraught with ambiguity.

  • Vendors of flight planning SW should build their product to automatically integrate the FAA digital charts into their products, to eliminate their continued cost of updated to databases. This would require an inteface agreement between the vendors and FAA. As for charging for updates, in reality these should cost pennies per month. If we’re to pay for updated, lets pay for what we’re getting not cure the national debt issue.

    • Amen, but I would expand on your comment, to include “vendors of navigation software,” in addition to “vendors of flight planning software.” The “chart” capabilities belong in both domains, and there must be in place a methodology to ensure that they always are in sync.

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