The summer of 2016 may be viewed as the beginning of the end of standard FAA charts. It sounds foolish to make such a bold prediction, but there are some very good reasons to believe a decade-long trend away from traditional sectionals and approach plates has accelerated recently. Technology plays a significant role, but so do changes by the FAA.
Now before you accuse me of sensationalism, let me assure you that paper charts aren’t disappearing tomorrow (and on behalf of my colleagues at Sporty’s, please don’t cancel your chart orders). However, a farsighted pilot should consider where the following three trends might lead in five or ten years.
Apps are moving to data-driven
Any discussion of charts in 2016 has to start with the app revolution that has swept through aviation over the last six years. While not all pilots fly with an iPad, surveys show that a significant majority of them do, in everything from taildraggers to airliners. That means electronic flight bag (EFB) apps are now the primary source of chart data in aviation, and these apps are changing the very definition of “chart.”
Broadly speaking, three EFB apps dominate aviation: ForeFlight, Garmin and Jeppesen. As these apps have evolved from showing scanned copies of paper charts to interactive moving maps, the way pilots access information has evolved too. With the release of ForeFlight version 8 this summer, all three of these apps now offer data-driven maps. Instead of showing the exact replica of a sectional or IFR en route chart, data-driven maps take FAA data and repackage them into custom map layers that are scalable, automatically decluttered, and customizable.
This sounds like a minor change at first, but it has major implications. By moving from static to dynamic, apps are in the driver’s seat, not the FAA. The app developers are just getting started too, releasing new features and enhancements on a regular schedule. A great example is Garmin’s nearest airport feature, which automatically highlights nearby airports in an emergency and declutters the screen to show only essential information. This is impossible with a sectional or IFR en route chart.
While this has been a slow transition for most pilots, it’s the default for another group of chart users: drone pilots. This rapidly growing segment of aviation will exert a powerful influence on how FAA data is created and shared, and their expectations are quite different from those of a Cessna pilot. Drone pilots have grown up with apps like Airmap and Hover as the default planning tools, so many of them don’t know what a sectional is.
The FAA is trying to open up
Another factor changing the chart landscape is the FAA’s recent introduction of its “Got Data” program, officially known as the External Data Access Initiative (EDAI). This government-industry collaboration has the stated goal “to spur innovation, provide better opportunities for the development of new applications and services, and ultimately, advance the safety and efficiency of the aviation industry.” Some of this is fluff, the strategic packaging of buzzwords to make the FAA look trendy – but not all of it.
In a recent update, the FAA shared some additional details: “The initiative’s first phase focuses on the release of data in the aeronautical domain, e.g., data used to create charts.” That data includes airports, navaids, obstacles, approaches, TFRs and more, which is a good start. If there’s more coming, EDAI could represent an important change in the way government supplies aeronautical data.
This initiative has the potential to accelerate the development of new mapping products, like the data-driven maps from ForeFlight and Garmin. Up until now, these new products have been almost exclusively en route charts. Approach plates, in particular, have been off limits for a variety of reasons, including regulations and liability concerns.
There are some exceptions, including Naverus (a company that is now a part of GE), that has carved out a successful niche by making custom RNP approaches. This has opened up some airports that were previously unreachable (as this amazing approach into a mountain airport in Tibet shows), but it’s very expensive and complex. Might the evolving app marketplace and a newly open FAA data policy make privately developed approaches more realistic?
The paper chart business is changing
The final development in the world of FAA charts has come not from technology but from the staid world of paper charts. This summer, the FAA implemented a significant change to its distribution model, shifting responsibility from the federal government to private companies which will print and distribute charts to retailers. The FAA maintains oversight of the final product, but the financial incentives are dramatically different under the new model.
This change is a reaction to declining paper chart sales, but the result will probably be even lower chart sales. Since the FAA has been subsidizing the cost of charts for years, prices will look certain to go up; in particular, approach plates may double in price this fall. Other charts could disappear as volume declines and it no longer makes sense to fire up a printing press for small quantities. The WAC chart has met this fate already.
Jeppesen, the other source for aviation charts, has moved to a print-on-demand model, where they only print the charts as they are ordered, instead of stockpiling huge quantities of paper charts. They certainly aren’t abandoning paper, but it’s clear the future of their business doesn’t involve millions of pages of thin paper.
Viewed from afar, it’s clear that the FAA wants to be in the data business, not the chart business. In the jargon, you might say the FAA is moving from a vertically integrated business to a service provider. Maybe that’s forward looking, maybe it’s just a matter of dollars and cents (I’m betting on the latter).
Still, the change has the potential to deliver a number of benefits for pilots. First, data-driven charts offer multiple zoom levels that declutter and scale for each phase of flight. To get the same feature from paper charts, a pilot would have to carry a terminal area chart, a sectional chart, a world aeronautical chart and a US VFR planning chart. Now instead of buying four charts (really analog zoom levels), you just pinch.
Secondly, data-driven maps are customizable for different types of pilots and different phases of flight. A VFR pilot can hide IFR waypoints and other non-essential data, or a helicopter pilot could turn on all obstacles for a low level flight. That helps safety. There’s even the potential for completely new charts or procedures, serving niche applications or low activity airports.
Last, and perhaps most interesting, is the ability to deliver updates quickly and easily – without depending on the FAA’s 56-day chart cycle. Is an airport frequency incorrect? It can be updated and re-downloaded the same day.
Certainly there are risks as well. The lack of standardization is a positive change in many ways, allowing smart people to develop better ways of presenting information. But it also puts a lot of responsibility on companies (some of them very small) to present chart data safely and comprehensively. The options for customization also have a downside, as pilots could easily miss important data if they don’t know how to use the app. No doubt some will also worry about ceding too much control to private companies. Could aviation safety potentially be held hostage by market forces or profit-driven businesses?
For all these reasons, it’s quite possible we will see some level of FAA approval for data-driven maps at some point in the future. Just as chart printers have to be approved to sell paper charts, app developers may have to pass some quality standards before being approved for use as primary reference. Let’s just hope the phrase “TSO’d app” doesn’t come into common use.
For those worried about a Wild West of private charts, remember that regulations move much slower than technology. What’s possible and what’s legal will remain far apart for years to come. It’s likely that pilots will continue to fly with official FAA sectionals and approach plates (in digital form) as the legal replacement for paper charts, and use the data-driven maps as supplemental information. This is much like the late 1990s and early 2000s, when a lot of pilots flew based on their portable GPSs, even though the VOR receiver in the panel was the “official” navigation source.
Some perspective is also in order. Entities other than the federal government have been creating charts for decades, so this is hardly a radical change. Remember Elrey Jeppesen? He was doing private charting long before the iPad had been invented, and most pilots would agree that was a very good thing.