AOPA opposes FCC rule that would outlaw 121.5 MHz ELTs

June 21, 2010

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) June 15 released the notice of a rule prohibiting the “certification, manufacture, importation, sale, or continued use of 121.5 MHz ELTs.” The rule would suddenly make aircraft that are in full compliance with the federal aviation regulations in violation of federal communications law.

“At this time, we caution anyone against purchasing a new ELT until this issue is resolved,” said AOPA Vice President of Regulatory Affairs Rob Hackman. “There’s a lot of misunderstanding at this time as to the status of this rule. As verified by the FCC, the rule has not been published in the Federal Register, and thereby no effective date can be determined. This provides AOPA and the general aviation industry the opportunity to address our concerns with the FCC and potentially influence the outcome.”

14 CFR Part 91.207 currently requires aircraft to carry a fixed ELT, but does not specify either 121.5 or 406 MHz. The FCC’s change to 47 CFR Part 87 would outlaw the use of the former—effectively forcing general aviation aircraft owners to buy the 406 MHz ELT. The rule would go into effect 60 days after publication in the Federal Register. AOPA is aggressively pursuing all options to have the FCC and FAA delay and re-evaluate the rule, highlighting the economic and operational impact to the more than 220,000 aircraft in the GA fleet, most of whom still carry the 121.5 MHz ELTs. 

“The FCC is making a regulatory change that would impose an extra cost on GA operators, without properly communicating with the industry or understanding the implications of its action,” Hackman said. “There is no FAA requirement to replace 121.5 MHz units with 406 MHz technology. When two government agencies don’t coordinate, GA can suffer.”

Both the 121.5 MHz and 406 MHz ELTs meet the FAA’s regulatory requirements if manufactured to the proper technical standard order. While satellites no longer monitor the 121.5 MHz frequency as of Feb. 1, 2009, the frequency is monitored by ATC, the military, and other pilots. AOPA is exploring all avenues of action to address this rule before it goes into effect. 

It would be impossible to outfit all aircraft in the timeframe of the FCC rule and cost prohibitive for GA aircraft owners. The rule highlights the fact that threats to GA can come from many different areas, Hackman said. Government agencies outside of the FAA don’t necessarily understand the effects of their actions on aviation, and poor communication can compound the problem. In addition to the unnecessary cost, this ruling also raises the question of the legality of the 406 MHz ELTs because they also transmit a low-power signal on 121.5 MHz to allow the search-and-rescue community to home as part of the rescue process.