ADS-B: Does It Sharpen the Have and Have Not of Aviation?
An occupational hazard of being a journalist is that you're occasionally—wittingly or unwittingly—a shill for some product, a service, an organization...you name it. One reason for this is that much of what we do on AVweb is bulletin reporting. By that, I mean if a development happens or someone says something, we report it straight up and there's neither the time nor the predilection to find a balancing view, if there even is one.
And that gets to the reporting we're doing on ADS-B and the coming mandate. More and more people in the industry, GAMA for instance, are saying they're worried that if owners procrastinate on this, there won't be enough capacity to install the thousands of ADS-B systems required. We've been reporting this straight up, without challenging it. I'm not convinced it's entirely true because it assumes all of the 220,000 owners, or whatever number you choose, are going to equip with ADS-B. But based on my conversations with people about ADS-B, I'm not so sure. Reluctant buyers seem to fall into two camps: the confused and the pissed. The confused aren't sure what the mandate requires, although they know it requires it by 2020. The pissed may or may not understand the mandate, but many are saying they're going to exit GA and sell their airplanes or otherwise not install ADS-B.
Even if most of them are bluffing, I'm betting that a lot aren't. A significant percentage of the aircraft-owning population is now of a "certain age," when they're flying less, spending more and teetering on the edge of remaining involved. Perhaps the ADS-B mandate is one of three elements that could be the perfect storm to push these owners out of airplanes and into RVs or late-life sports cars. The other two are the perception of higher fuel prices when 100LL is phased out and the (so far) false promise of relief on the Third Class medical. Oh, add one more: the stupid sleep apnea diagnosis the FAA is still pursuing. The ADS-B mandate is fully five years and four months off. What's your guess on whether the FAA will resolve the Third Class issue favorably during the next three to five years? I wouldn't bet on it.
My worry is that there will be just enough owner exits to noticeably tank used aircraft values and there won't be enough new owners coming online to take up the slack. That accelerates ownership erosion and it trickles down to less fuel purchased, fewer tiedowns and hangars rented, fewer engine overhauls and so forth. I'm not predicting a mass exodus; I'm expecting a noticeable drift toward the exits.
In this context, I think the industry is getting sideways with its customers through its dire warnings about lack of installation capacity. This shows that the sellers and organizations that represent them are out of touch with the people they have to convince to actually buy this equipment. And don't forget, it's not entirely about money, but also principle. Many owners are unhappy to feel railroaded by government decree into a program that they see as of little practical use and just another expensive barrier to owning an airplane. I'm not pushing that view myself because I don't share it. But I think it's reality.
At AirVenture, FAA Administrator Huerta said no how, no way will the 2020 mandate deadline slip. Before that, FAA deputy administrator Michael G. Whitaker told Congress that the mandate absolutely, positively will not change. As far as I'm concerned, this means it absolutely, positively will slip by a year or two because the confidence with which a government bureaucrat states that something is certain is inversely proportional to how rubbery it actually is. I have no inside information on this, by the way, and I'm not trying to start another rumor. But my guess is by 2018, we'll be writing stories about how the ADS-B requirement will be delayed. Just call it a hunch based on long experience watching the FAA crater its own deadlines. (UAV regulations anyone? Remember WAAS and GPS approvals?)
It has been suggested that the government simply fund the upgrades as basic infrastructure investment. That would cost about $800 million; probably not a bad investment. While I'm personally opposed to such government handouts, maybe split the difference and offer a $1500 credit for owners who upgrade before, say, 2018. That'll never happen, but it's worth mentioning.
So, what to do? Lucky me, the Cub has no electrical system and no need to fly in mandated airspace so I can ignore the whole thing. If I had a capable airplane, say a Mooney, Cirrus, Bonanza or maybe a 182 or a light twin that I planned to keep for a few years, I'd equip now or within a year or two. Two years from now, I suspect there is not going to be a shop-choking rush and there are enough competing systems out there that you can get into mandated ADS-B for as little as $3000, depending on what else is in the panel. (You need a suitable GPS source.) A full-up Garmin GDL 88 will cost around $5000 installed. Although we all expect additional ADS-B products before the mandate, there's no assurance that any of them will be significantly cheaper or more capable than what's out there now, but there's always a chance. Anyway, for an airplane that's worth more than say, $80,000, the ADS-B investment just isn't that great as a percentage of ownership cost.
If you know you gotta do this, might as well get it over with. Even if you think you might sell your airplane before the mandate kicks in, either because you're exiting aviation or upgrading, it will be more saleable with ADS-B installed than without. And if my prediction of enough owners dumping airframes to soften already weak sales proves true, you might need all the help you can get to attract buyers and prop up the sale price.
It's the owners of less capable airplanes that aren't flown much that may have the most difficult decision. Older Cherokees and Skyhawks, vintage models like Cessna 120s, 140s, 150s and 170s, of which there are thousands. Beech Skippers and Musketeers. Older Mooney M20s. The list is long. I can well understand why these owners might sit on the fence until the shops actually do get backed up or until they have to sell. Owners of these airplanes are what's left of middle-income flying affordability. In a way, the ADS-B mandate sharpens the have and have-not divide that aviation has fostered. For some owners, a $5000 upgrade is chump change. For others, equipping with ADS-B will represent a quarter or more of the value of the airframe. I don't know what I'd do in this circumstance. Probably wait until 2017 and take my chances that cheaper boxes will appear.
To be perfectly clear-eyed about it, ADS-B is not entirely without merit. The Out broadcast doesn't get you much, other than more precise positional information to ATC and, of course, continued access to airspace. The In broadcast brings in weather and increasingly better traffic information. (Ironically, just as traffic systems get better, there are ever fewer airplanes flying for these systems to see.) The FIS-B weather component is definitely a nice to have, although you can get that in a cheap portable outputting to a tablet. And that might argue for the cheapest possible ADS-B Out solution you can find. ADS-B In is supposed to be the carrot to entice equipage, but the flaw in that logic is you can get FIS-B for under $1500 and have an EFIS to play on your tablet to boot. Overpriced carrots anyone?
The regulators have dealt GA owners a difficult if not a bad hand not just because owners resent being forced to buy equipment they really don't want. It's the timing and the demographics that make this mandate more damaging than is generally believed, in my view. I think the alphabets and companies selling ADS-B are insensitive to this. I think equipage is going slowly because so many of us see little compelling value in ADS-B and the carrot-and-stick offer of free weather just looks like a stick. Shrill warnings about reluctant owners failing to equip putting themselves at risk just makes it look like a bigger stick.