Sectional charts
8 min read

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.”

Data-driven chart ForeFlight

It’s not an official FAA chart, but it’s based on that data.

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

Sectional charts

The economics of paper charts are 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.

RNP approach to CYHM

Some airlines are creating their own approaches. Could that flexibility come to GA one day?

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.

John Zimmerman
11 replies
  1. Steve
    Steve says:

    I own an FBO, and sell charts. About 5 years ago the FAA decided I needed to sell $5000 worth a year, or they would not sell to me, so I stopped stocking all but the local chart, so all those people who but them local, now have to mail order or go 50 miles to get them.

  2. Duane
    Duane says:

    Frankly, good riddance. I’ve always hated paper charts in the cockpit. Most car and truck drivers, except for a few idiots, would not dream of blasting down the highway or busy city streets with their noses buried in a large format road map – they either pull over to the side to study the map, or have a “navigator” riding shotgun to give directions to the driver … yet solo pilots were always forced to resort to unfolding large paper maps to figure out where we were and where we wanted to go.

    Bottom line is that paper charts are guaranteed to be a huge distraction in the cockpit for pilots, and they are a pain to manage and keep updated. Electronic provide the least distraction to pilots in the cockpit, by far, and they are easily updated.

    Electronic aviation charts are in all respects a godsend. Far smaller, far easier to use, with vastly richer data types and ranges available and displayed only as needed with a punch of a button, whether physical or touchscreen, on your lap, on the yolk, or in the panel. Someday soon, on the head up display.

    Frankly I’m far less worried about private app developers “taking over” aviation data as John suggest concerns him, than I am concerned about the proven crapola performance of the FAA in doing just about anything they do in life. With private developers, the market determines who succeeds and who fails … with the government in charge, failure to respond to pilot needs is a guaranteed outcome … we only have about 75 years of proof of that performance.

  3. Mark Fay
    Mark Fay says:

    I still subscribe to the paper Jepp IFR enroute charts. The only benefit I have gotten in the last two years was the feeling of kinship with the aviators of old when I update my book with the super thin sheets of paper and once on the way to San Jose New Mexico the sun was so bright I couldn’t see my iPad and the cantankerous controller from Alb center demanded proof that I had charts on board since I had filed San Jose airport, but they were expecting me to go to San Jose VOR. He made me read the airway number between two obscure fixes near Mesa AZ. I think he would have given me a phone number if I couldn’t give him the Victor Airway.

    Anyway, that’s not enough of a benefit to having them. I love my iPad Air 2 which is easier to read in bright light. Being old and sentimental, I will miss them for no practical reason when they are gone.

    • Samuel
      Samuel says:

      You should have asked him if he was a DPE. Since he probably wasn’t, you then could have said “Then shut up.”

      He’s just a controller. He doesn’t get to “ramp check” you in the air or give you an on-the-spot quiz. Just sayin’. Sometimes you have to make everyone play by the rules.

  4. Laurie
    Laurie says:

    As a VFR pilot, I always carry the paper charts, and I plan and mark my route on them – including planned altitudes, distances, etc. I have an older iPad that I take for other purposes, but its connection to the external GPS isn’t reliable enough to count on for electronic maps and you can’t see the overall big picture on a screen. I’d be lost (metaphorically speaking) without the paper sectionals. The USGS has also moved to being a data provider instead of a map provider; that’s been a mixed bag. Thank goodness I have a stash of the good old topo quads because they are no longer printed. (Well, they can be custom printed in really crummy resolution for an exorbitant price.)

  5. Stu
    Stu says:

    I see both sides of the debate and I’m not sure which side I land on. I fly in Canada where we have a great deal of trouble getting digital versions of Canadian VFR charts. FltPlan.go has them, which I highly recommend, since I don’t have to pay a substantial subscription fee for them.

    But digital charts may not be all they’re cracked up to be. For example, last year my wingman and I were flying in New Mexico. My wingman was using a late model large screen Garmin GPS with recently updated maps that showed a restricted area ahead. My new paper chart showed no such area. In the end we decided to go with the official publication, that being the paper chart, and continue without deviation.

    What will happen in the future when someone violates airspace based on digital charts and best intentions?

    Last week we flew from our base in Calgary, Alberta, to Santa Rosa, CA, and back where I didn’t look at a paper map for the whole trip. The main reason was that I couldn’t get a US one here in Calgary due to the FAA’s new chart policy. Our local pilot supply shops and map dealers don’t carry them any more.

    Instead, I used only the digital maps on my two GPS’s and my tablet. Despite initial reservations about such reliance on electrons, I really enjoyed the experience and I’m looking forward to doing so again. It’ll be very interesting to see where Canada goes with this.

    There’s a lot of inherent convenience, safety and reliability if pilots use and update the equipment properly.
    Having said that, I’ve never had a paper map run out of batteries.

  6. Roca
    Roca says:

    While I enjoy the new data chart update on my Foreflight app, it still has some serious limitations. I fly low-level on a pipeline patrol, and as such I have a need to see not just obstacles, but landmarks such as powerline slashes, VFR checkpoints, train tracks, small bodies of water, etc. There’s currently no way to customize the data charts down to this level. Also, I need to talk to airports in my flight path so I need to see the CTAF frequencies displayed prominently as I pass them. So unfortunately, I have to stick with the VFR sectional views even though they are still more cluttered than I’d like. Maybe in a few years the data-based will give me something to use.

    I’ve also had the iPad shut down on me due to software glitches or overtemps, so I carry a recently expired set of local charts for just-in-case. If we do go to all-digital, I’d like to see the FAA publish an annual binder of charts and plates that we could buy for backup. Sort of like a road atlas that you keep in your car.

    • Duane
      Duane says:

      Roca – Whether you see full sectional data or not depends on which app or system you’re using, but several at least offer electronic sectional moving map displays, showing everything that a printed sectional displays. Some aviation nav systems can toggle back and forth between full sectional data and a simplified map display with various levels of zoom and de-cluttering. Additionally, the types of data displayed are fully customizable, so you as the user determine what types of data you’re interested in seeing displayed.

    • Duane
      Duane says:

      As for an ipad shutting down on you, it is true that any device can fail. But the easy fix is redundancy, which is very cheap. I fly with a Garmin 400 GPS and a portable moving map navigator mounted on my yolk as well as a smart phone that also provides a moving map display and can use any aviation nav app as well as multiple non-aviation nav apps. That gives me three independent moving maps. It would be easy and cheap to add a fourth with a ipad or android pad on my lap too.

      And for those who like to say, well the GPS satellites can go down too, folks should be aware that there are already two fully independent GPS constellations in operation now – the American GPS and the Russian Glonass – and starting next year a new American GPS constellation is going to be launched that is designed to be much more robust as well as offer increased precision and is designed to work in conjunction with other sat systems. The Europeans are launching their own sat constellation that will be fully operational by 2020. New sat nav systems are already available now designed to operate on both the US and Russian systems, and by 2020 the standard nav receivers will likely be able to operate from all three constellations.

      Unless there’s like a major world war in progress – in which private aviation is likely to be shut down anyway – the chances of a complete sat nave outage are going to be very close to zero.

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