FCC takes measured approach to 121.5 MHz ELTs

January 9, 2013

After facing strong opposition from AOPA, the FAA, and others, the FCC has opted to do some more listening before deciding what to do about 121.5 MHz emergency locator transmitters (ELTs) still in widespread use in the general aviation fleet.

The FCC released on Jan. 8 a further notice of proposed rulemaking on 121.5 MHz ELTs expected to be published in the Federal Register later in the month, starting the clock on a 30-day comment period. Unlike past proposals, this third notice of proposed rulemaking on the subject does not include a deadline to replace 121.5 MHz ELTs that would effectively ground much of the GA fleet pending installation of 406 MHz ELTs.

Responding to such a mandate proposed in 2006, AOPA and the Aircraft Electronics Association noted that 121.5 MHz ELTs remained in service in about 200,000 aircraft, and the available inventory of 406 MHz ELTs was far short of what would be required to rapidly retrofit those aircraft. AOPA also noted the high cost of such upgrades, estimated at the time at up to $500 million. GA operators were meanwhile equipping themselves with emergency position indicating radio beacons and GPS-based personal locator beacons, available both then and now at significantly lower cost. Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) equipment, which will be mandated under NextGen by 2020 for aircraft operating in controlled airspace, also provides high-precision position data that can facilitate rapid search and rescue. Modern cellphones and other electronic devices also offer GPS-based location services.

The FCC notes that satellite monitoring of the 121.5 MHz frequency ceased in 2009, and invites comments on whether--and when--121.5 MHz ELTs should be phased out of use. The notice published Jan. 8 includes a proposed one-year period for existing 121.5 MHz ELT inventory to be sold and installed before prohibition of further sales, allowing retailers an opportunity to exhaust their inventory before the devices are removed from the market--a delay that is subject to comment and further consideration.

The FCC also poses the question of whether to mandate disclosure to consumers of the fact that satellites no longer monitor 121.5 MHz, and invites further discussion of whether or not to mandate installation of 406 MHz ELTs, which are less prone to false alarm and monitored by satellites.

AOPA will work closely with the FCC, FAA, and other stakeholders to protect freedom to fly and guard against unwarranted mandates. Members will be alerted when the comment period opens, and are encouraged to share their comments, as always, with AOPA staff.