Digital chart charge meeting kicks off industry dialogue

December 13, 2011

For the first time since it announced it would start charging for its digital chart products, the FAA’s AeroNav Services branch brought together major stakeholders Dec. 13 to float ideas and field suggestions.

For many years the FAA has been required by law to recover some costs associated with chart production, as it does for paper charts. At the meeting the FAA said it must recover $5 million of operating costs in the first year of digital charges, and proposed options for reaching that number. Some, it was clear, were nonstarters. But input from AOPA and dozens of vendors will help the agency draft a proposal that it has committed to releasing for public comment in early 2012.

“The FAA has not yet decided on a firm proposal for digital product charges, and it’s important that all the players are at the table as the agency looks at different options,” said AOPA Senior Director of Airspace and Modernization Heidi Williams, who has met with AeroNav Services officials several times to advocate on behalf of members on the issue. “Implementing new charges could have safety implications if it’s not done correctly, so whatever the FAA decides to do must be backed up by solid data and input from both companies and end users.”

Basing a proposal on bad market data could have far-reaching implications. Pilot associations and vendors told the FAA that one estimate of the number of digital chart users was extremely low—and estimating a charge per user based on that low number would result in untenably high costs. High costs, in turn, would impose pressure on pilots who have to make a decision on what and how much data to purchase for their navigation purposes.

After hearing AOPA and vendors’ arguments, the FAA acknowledged that “more work is necessary to determine the pricing.”

The FAA is required to recover some of the costs of creating and disseminating aeronautical products and services, but it is not mandated to reach full cost-recovery. And the same law that authorizes it to assess fees stipulates that it should avoid any impact on safety attributable to price.

The $5 million calculation stems from the consolidation of the National Aeronautical Charting Office and the National Flight Procedures Office into one “high-performance organization” intended “to eliminate redundant processes and improve the quality of aeronautical navigation data.” To fulfill the requirements of a high-performance organization outlined in an Office of Management and Budget Document, it must collect $27 million per year of its operating costs; the digital charting charges would bridge the gap from the $22 million the office currently collects.

The FAA originally said it planned to implement charges starting in April 2012, but AOPA disputes the timeline. “First and foremost, the FAA has to ensure that its plans will have no negative impact on safety,” Williams said. “It will have to base its decisions on sound market data, which it can only get by talking to users—companies as well as the pilots who will ultimately be using the products. Successful implementation can’t be tied to an unrealistic date.”

The FAA plans to release a proposal in January or February to solicit input; AOPA will share the proposal with members and represent pilots’ interests in discussions with the FAA.