Industry to demand answers on digital chart charges

November 22, 2011

AOPA is collaborating with commercial vendors of FAA digital chart products in advance of a Dec. 13 meeting with the agency to learn about its plans to begin charging for its digital products and only provide them to those who have an agreement with the agency's AeroNav Services branch.

This week, the association reached out to ForeFlight, Seattle Avionics, Aspen Avionics, Sporty’s Pilot Shop, Hilton Software, VoiceFlight Systems, and the Experimental Aircraft Association to help ensure the industry presents a unified voice during the Dec. 13 meeting in Glenn Dale, Md. AOPA and the industry plan to push the FAA for answers on the details of the plan, the agency’s long-term vision for digital publications, and the difference between printed and digital chart product models. The FAA has not yet released any details of the plan to charge for the products. However, the FAA posted a notice on its website that as of Oct. 20, new chart editions would not be available until 24 hours in advance of their effective dates. This is a change to the FAA’s previous operations in which the digital charting products were available for download up to 15 days prior to their effective date.

The FAA claims that it will begin charging for its digital products to enhance safety. The agency acknowledged that it does not know who is downloading its data or how it is being used, which could impact the integrity of the information. While AOPA understands it is vital to protect the integrity of the data that pilots use to navigate under VFR and IFR, the association believes there are other ways to ensure the data is being used properly without charging fees.

“It might be possible to create a digital products agreement similar to what the FAA has done with its print chart vendors,” which are not charged just to sign an agreement with the agency, said Heidi Williams, AOPA senior director of airspace and modernization.

AOPA and the industry are concerned that the FAA's proposal may ultimately set up a fee structure that creates a safety-of-flight problem. Right now, the data is free and accessible to all pilots, or available for a low-cost subscription through commercial vendors who use the data in their flight planning applications. Depending on the fee structure the FAA establishes for the data, that cost may ultimately be passed on to pilots who would have to make a decision on what and how much data to purchase for their navigation purposes.

The FAA has the authority to charge for its products, as long as it does not turn a profit through the sales. However, the agency is not mandated to have a monopoly on the data or charge for full-cost recovery. “But more importantly, safety cannot be impacted as a result of the charges,” Williams said, “and we simply don't have the data to know if that is the case.” The group also wants to know what studies the agency has conducted to determine that charging for the products will enhance safety or be in the best interest of pilots.

As AOPA continues to work with the industry to develop a united front, the association will continue its discussions with the FAA. AOPA met with FAA officials in August and October, and will meet with them again Dec. 6 in advance of the Dec. 13 industry meeting to discuss a variety of issues.

In 2009, the FAA consolidated 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,” AOPA previously reported. Since then, AeroNav Services has made numerous changes to FAA policies, including an increase to the threshold of the amount of chart sales vendors needed to meet and the release of new charts to pilots. AOPA regularly meets with AeroNav Services officials and advocates on behalf of members on any proposed changes. The association is doing the same with the FAA’s plan to charge for digital products and will share more information with members after its Dec. 6 and 13 meetings with the agency.