Air Traffic Services and Technology
Air Traffic Services Brief
Inexpensive GPS Databases
The cost of Global Positioning System (GPS) database subscriptions continues to be one of the most frequently cited reasons that members are not equipping with Instrument Flight Rules (IFR) certified GPS. While general aviation pilots generally appreciate the benefits of using GPS, the cost of maintaining a database is between $350-$700 annually, and current data is mandatory for all IFR flights according to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Conversely, databases are not required when using ground-based navigation, and many members refuse to accept the added costs associated with GPS.
The Importance to Our Members
One of AOPA's core missions is to keep flying affordable. As the FAA transitions the National Airspace System to satellite navigation, affordable database options are needed to ensure that a database subscription does not become the cost of admission to IFR operations. AOPA supports FAA efforts to implement the use of GPS and WAAS as the replacement to the current ground-based infrastructure. However, no free or low-cost option exists for pilots to access all of the necessary information.
Based on survey input from members, database cost is a major deterrent to the voluntary transition to GPS as the primary navigation system. In the 1990s, AOPA began advocating a free or low-cost navigation database. In response to an AOPA request from 1997, senior FAA staff committed to the development and distribution of the database. In the following years, AOPA successfully lobbied Congress for funding to build an electronic navigation database. Today, the FAA navigation database exists, but it still lacks the necessary content to be used for instrument flight. Additionally, manufacturers continue to express doubt about the true impact of database subscriptions on consumer interest in GPS.
Electronic navigation data necessary for instrument flight needs to be provided to all users of the National Airspace System at an affordable cost.
The FAA is now publishing a GPS navigation database that can be purchased by consumers of navigation databases. The current cost is $156 per year. An update on CD-ROM is provided every 28 days. This compares to similar GPS updates exceeding $600 from GPS manufacturers.
Data elements included are: Airports and Heliports, VHF and NDB Navigation Aids, Fixes/Waypoints and Airways, Standard Instrument Departures (SIDs), Standard Terminal Arrival Procedures (STARs), and GPS and RNAV (GPS) Standard Instrument Approach Procedures (SIAPs) with their associated Minimum Safe Altitude (MSA) data.
However, there are several reasons why the database is not usable to most members of AOPA:
- The database is not yet populated with all necessary content. While the database includes all stand-alone GPS approaches, it excludes over 800 "overlay" approaches that are flyable with GPS, but originally designed for ground-based navigation systems. In addition, most of the new GPS systems sold today have other navigation receivers included (e.g., VOR and ILS). This means that those navigation systems need more database content than simply the GPS approaches. The FAA database does not have NDB, VOR, or ILS approaches included at this time.
- The database does not have any international content. This creates problems for pilots subscribing to the FAA database, should they desire to travel to a neighboring country or a global adventure.
- Manufacturers also play a role in navigation databases. In most cases that AOPA is aware of, the manufacturers contract with a single data supplier for their database needs. This means that the data supplier and the avionics manufacturer work closely to customize the content, format, and method used to keep the data current. Such customization likely reduces a manufacturer's interest in working with both the FAA and the commercial provider. In addition, the manufacturers sell their products globally. Since the FAA database does not have the international data, the manufacturers would still need to obtain international data from non-federal sources, which may be difficult to obtain affordably.
Choosing the Right Subscription
In the years since the FAA began constructing its database, some manufacturers have begun to offer online database downloads, which reduced the cost of subscriptions by as much as one half. However, AOPA members need to be intelligent consumers and subscribe to services at levels appropriate to their operational needs.
AOPA has constantly encouraged the FAA to continue populating its database with all necessary information to make it usable. Through strong advocacy and challenges to FAA policy, AOPA continues to seek opportunities to reduce or eliminate the cost of navigation database subscriptions.
On this specific issue, AOPA members can also play a significant role on their own behalf as consumers of the GPS systems. It has been our experience that the manufacturers respond to market conditions and consumer interests. Members should consider their own situation and decide for themselves how to ensure that their database subscriptions are appropriate to the operations they conduct.