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Charting changes cause concern

AOPA prompts FAA to clarify specifics

Editor's note: This story was updated January 13 to include additional information.

Recently announced charting changes have blindsided pilots and provoked outcry on social media. The FAA clarified some changes with a revised notice that came largely as a result of discussions with AOPA.

The term "landmark value" appears in sectional aeronautical chart legends, but is not well defined by the FAA, and could lead to some private airports being removed from printed charts. AOPA illustration based on FAA chart.

The first to capture the attention of various social media groups, pilots, and private airstrip owners was a charting notice issued in September that “only private airports with landmark value will be retained and charted beyond February 23, 2023.”

This forthcoming change will not apply to the electronic airport database used by navigation devices, but could lead to the removal of an unknown (but likely very small) number of private airports from printed sectional charts, including the digital versions of those that the FAA posts online.

The FAA offered no public explanation why this change was being made and did not mention the pending change at the October Aeronautical Chart Meeting (ACM), a twice-yearly event designed to coordinate such efforts among stakeholders. (AOPA is a longtime member of this group.)

The original 37-word notice was updated January 11, days after it garnered attention, on the FAA website, where routine “safety alerts and charting notices” are listed and linked. The FAA revised and amplified the original September notice to include some additional information: “Beyond the December 29, 2022 effective date, private airports will continue to be charted for their landmark value. Landmark value will continue to be determined using the same, multiple criteria prior to the removal of 'emergency or' text from the legend.”

Previously, private airports were charted based on one of two things—either “emergency use” or “landmark value.” The emergency use rationale has been removed, leaving only landmark value as a reason to chart such airports.

Some specifics about landmark value are a bit ambiguous and fall within what is known as “cartographic judgement”—in other words, the determination is left to the discretion of cartographers. The stated criteria, listed in the revised notice, are airport operational status, airspace determination, length and surface of runway(s), owner charting preference, satellite imagery, National Airspace System Resource remarks specific to the airport, and airport significance relative to surrounding chart features.

As pilots know better than nonpilots, the way an airport looks from a satellite perspective has little bearing on how it appears to the naked eye from an altitude of, for example, 5,000 feet at 10 miles away, depending on terrain, land development, and other factors. AOPA Director of Airspace, Air Traffic, and Security Jim McClay said FAA staff will take into consideration requests from pilots and airport owners to retain their airports on the charts.

AOPA has learned that there will be no sudden concerted effort to remove private airports from the charts wholesale—in fact, the FAA has advised that we will likely not see many significant changes in the short term. McClay said the Charting Office does not intend to automatically remove airports that had been charted on the basis of “emergency value.” Rather, private airports will continue to be routinely evaluated as they always have been. The only difference is that the decision about whether to add or retain private airports will no longer consider their emergency use value.

With more attention now being paid to charting notices thanks to social media, another change has also provoked complaint: removal of most foreign aeronautical data from charts that include portions of Mexico or Canada. What was once presented in detail has been largely grayed out, and the FAA advises pilots to consult the charting products produced by those countries for detailed information. This change was presented to the ACM years before the October 12 notice, though not discussed in much detail or at recent meetings.

“We have expressed our concerns to FAA about the way these changes were communicated to industry and have emphasized that future charting changes should be thoroughly briefed to the Aeronautical Charting Meeting,” said McClay.

Jim Moore

Jim Moore

Managing Editor-Digital Media
Digital Media Managing Editor Jim Moore joined AOPA in 2011 and is an instrument-rated private pilot, as well as a certificated remote pilot, who enjoys competition aerobatics and flying drones.
Topics: Advocacy, Airspace Redesign, FAA Information and Services

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