FCC halts pursuit of 121.5 MHz ELT ban

January 13, 2011

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) stayed a rule Jan. 11 that would have prohibited the certification, manufacture, importation, sale, or use of 121.5 MHz emergency locator transmitters (ELTs). 

The rule, if enacted, would have required the replacement of 121.5 MHz ELTs with 406 MHz ELTs at a direct cost to aircraft owners.  It could have also caused a shortage of the 406 MHz ELTs, leading to the potential grounding of aircraft until such time as units became available. After the commission released notice of the rule June 15 on its website, AOPA immediately expressed concern to the FCC and FAA, coordinated with other aviation groups, and provided information about ELTs to members of Congress. In a letter to the FCC in June, the association highlighted its concerns and asked the FCC to rescind the rule and engage the aviation industry. The FCC stayed the prohibition at the request of the FAA, acknowledging concerns shared by AOPA and others.

“This reversal is evidence that a coordinated effort from the aviation community can effect change and prevent a harmful proposal from becoming law,” said AOPA Vice President of Regulatory Affairs Rob Hackman. “We were able to explain that 121.5 MHz ELTs are not obsolete, and that the proposal to require their replacement would be both impractical and unwise. The FAA’s involvement, and the FCC’s receptiveness, helped ensure this positive outcome.” The ban was never published in the Federal Register, which would have set a timeline for the rule going into effect.

The FCC’s recent order explains the FAA’s objections to the ban, which mirror AOPA’s concerns.

“The FAA believes that the current supply of 406 MHz ELTs is not sufficient to replace all existing 121.5 MHz ELTs in the short term, so, given that most General Aviation aircraft are required to carry ELTs, a prohibition on 121.5 MHz ELTs would effectively ground most such aircraft,” the document reads. “The FAA further asserts that 121.5 MHz ELTs can continue to provide a beneficial means of locating missing aircraft even without satellite monitoring of frequency 121.5 MHz, because the frequency is still monitored by the search and rescue community, including the Civil Air Patrol. It also is concerned about the cost of equipping aircraft with 406 MHz ELTs.”

“No action will be taken regarding 121.5 MHz ELTs until further notice, following an additional opportunity for interested parties to comment,” it concludes.

That opportunity to comment—before the late stages of rulemaking—is crucial to the regulatory process because the FAA has insight into the potential effects of a rule like this that the FCC may not. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson (R-Mo.) stressed the importance of communicating with the industry and pilots in a letter to the FCC.

“As the FCC continues it[s] work to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of the emergency locator system, I would hope the Commission would commit to an open and transparent process, one which allows for input from all those who are affected by this decision,” she wrote.

“In addition to our work with the FCC and FAA, we were fortunate to have Congresswoman Jo Ann Emerson express her concern to the FCC.  She was integral in achieving this success,” said AOPA Vice President of Legislative Affairs Lorraine Howerton.  

AOPA recognizes the benefits that can be derived from the advanced ELTs available today. However, the association has long held that the benefits of advanced ELTs must be balanced against cost and the needs of the individual aircraft owner. AOPA supports the installation of these more advanced ELTs on a voluntary basis, but maintains that decisions to replace an existing ELT should be left to the discretion of the aircraft owner. The association supports the education of pilots and aircraft owners as to the limits of 121.5 MHz ELTs and the benefits of 406-MHz units.