The days of inexpensive navigation and chart apps for your mobile devices appear to be numbered with the FAA's announcement that it will begin charging for downloads that were previously free starting April 5, 2012. A story in the December issue of our sister publication Aviation Consumer says the Aeronautical Navigational Products Directorate (Aeronav), which currently makes the latest charts and other navigational products available online for free, says it has to recover the costs associated with developing and hosting the products. That means charging fees to companies for those downloads and no longer allowing individuals access them at all. As of April 5, only those with distribution contracts with Aeronav will be able to download the data. The most noticeable impact will likely be on the small but increasingly popular industry segment (like ForeFlight and WingX) that develops flight-related apps for iPads and other consumer electronics. It will also have an impact on websites like RunwayFinder that use the data for their online products, some of which are currently available for free. How much impact isn't known because the FAA hasn't announced what it intends to charge for the data. Affected companies have been invited to a meeting Dec. 13 in Washington to hear details of the FAA's proposal and offer input to the final pricing structure and the distribution contract.
Industry officials told Aviation Consumer that the market will likely reject significant increases in cost for apps and online products. Smaller providers and free websites may simply go out of business. Larger companies may try to keep their subscribers but with higher subscription prices. The pervasive fear in the industry is that this could lead to only one or two entities controlling the market for the distribution of government-produced information that is essential for flight safety. Aeronav spokeswoman Abigail Smith told Aviation Consumer the agency is determined not to let that happen but the new fees, whatever they are, will have to be enough to cover costs. "Because we're legislated, we can't collect more money than our cost," she said. "We're committed to the most affordable product line for the end user. But if revenue diminishes, the product line diminishes." Under the new contract structure, the FAA will also set standards for those using FAA data to create their products. There have been issues with data being made inaccessible in the production of some apps and the standards will ensure that all information on printed charts is available in any digital version.