ELT ban threatens ‘substantial costs, fleeting benefits’

FCC should defer to FAA on aviation matters

April 2, 2013

The Federal Communications Commission should “immediately abandon” its bid to prohibit the certification, manufacture, importation, sale, or use of 121.5-MHz ELTs, AOPA said in a regulatory filing.

From its technological shortcomings to its costs—estimated by the FAA as $500 million—the proposal initiated by the FCC in January should be dropped, and the FCC should defer to the FAA on this and any future regulatory actions where aviation is concerned, AOPA said in extensive formal comments submitted April 1.

“The FCC should immediately abandon its proposed rule changes and continue to defer to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) on matters of aviation safety,” wrote AOPA Vice President of Regulatory Affairs Robert Hackman. AOPA believes that the FCC’s notice of its proposed ELT action was “defective in both form and substance and is accordingly open to legal challenge,” Hackman wrote.

AOPA has vigorously opposed the FCC’s on-again, off-again bid to ban ELTs that transmit on 121.5 MHz, pointing out that it amounts to a mandate for pilots to switch over to 406 MHz ELTs despite the availability of less expensive and more suitable technologies. The ban would place FCC rules in conflict with laws that allow use of 121.5 MHz units in aircraft. And the FCC’s proposal is also procedurally flawed because the agency failed to include a cost-benefit analysis in its proposal, or discuss the safety benefits it believes the rule would provide.

Hidden agenda

AOPA strongly believes, and asserted in its comments, that the FCC omitted its true intentions from the proposal when seeking comments from the public by April 1—depriving users of the opportunity to confront the agency’s plans head-on.

“Subsequent docketed discussions—contrary to the proposed language of the FCC’s published notice—indicate that the FCC has already decided to ban 121.5 MHz ELTs, regardless of the effect on aviation safety or of the costs on individual pilots and small businesses—and that the FCC further has already selected a ban date which it will neither disclose nor allow public comment on,” Hackman wrote.

He pointed out in AOPA’s comments that unlike the FCC, the FAA “rightly opposes” banning 121.5 MHz ELTs, which continue to serve their safety function despite no longer interacting with the satellite-based search-and-rescue monitoring system since 2009. The FAA’s continued support of 121.5 MHz ELTs led the search-and-rescue community to turn to the FCC to eliminate the existing ELTs, he said.

AOPA included in its comments a list of safety enhancements with “proven benefit” that pilots might not be able to afford if forced to install the more costly 406 MHz ELTs in their aircraft, and objected to an ELT mandate that would stunt development of other technologies that are potentially more affordable.

“Safety is not advanced by promoting reliance on one system to the exclusion of all possible helpful technologies,” he wrote.

AOPA criticized the FCC’s use of the rulemaking process to seek comments on a “possible” end date for using 121.5 MHz ELTs as “highly irregular” because the request for comments obscured the agency’s intention to ban the ELTs.

“Such roundabout discussions are not intended to put the public on clear notice,” he wrote.

Grounded aircraft

AOPA also believes that the FCC’s proposal has these flaws:

  • would lead to aircraft being grounded during long waits to have the new equipment installed;
  • blatantly disregards good rulemaking processes, reminiscent of the FCC’s handling of the failed LightSquared wireless network application;
  • will provide no measurable and identified benefits before 2020, when the NextGen technology ADS-B is scheduled to come into use in airspace now requiring a Mode C transponder (That would make ELTs “universally obsolete” by resulting in an estimated equipage rate of 85 percent of U.S. aircraft);
  • ignores the effects of voluntary installation of 406 MHz ELTs that make a rulemaking unnecessary;
  • ignores the necessity of compelling the search-and-rescue community to adapt to new communications technologies being used by pilots “by accommodating a variety of systems”;
  • clashes with protections for small businesses against unnecessary regulations.

AOPA urged the FCC to support education over mandates about ELTs and other lifesaving technologies.

“AOPA is confident that its educational efforts have played a major role in the recent voluntary equipage of thousands of pilots with 406 MHz ELTs and other technology such as personal locator beacons,” Hackman said.

Dan Namowitz

Dan Namowitz | Aviation Writer

Dan Namowitz is an aviation writer and flight instructor. He has been a pilot since 1985 and an instructor since 1990.