AeroNav Gets to 'Splain Itself

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....This week — on Tuesday — the FAA's AeroNav charting division will try to untangle the PR mess it has made of possible plans to charge vendors for access to digital charting products. We've reported and blogged on this previously.

We've since learned a bit more, albeit with no help from the FAA. First, here's the section of the U.S. code that describes AeroNav's required business plan. While I'm sending you afield, take a look at this excellent webinar by Seattle Avionics' Steve Podradchik. It summarizes everything nicely. As for the code, I'd point you at paragraph 2 in section F and paragraph C in section G.

To summarize, AeroNav is required to recover costs for producing and distributing navigation charts and the management of databases to support that work. But it is specifically prohibited from charging for the underlying flight data used to produce those procedures and charts. (The raw data comes from the procedures branch, among other sources.) This, evidently, is already paid for by the taxpayer-funded FAA general budget.

So what's changing here? AeroNav has always charged for paper charts and sometime around 2003 or so, it made available digital charts—the d-TPP—on DVD, which it also charged for. You could—and still can—buy the entire U.S. coverage for under $10 for one cycle. When the iPad and other tablets arrived, the app writers simply got the digital data, adapted it to their apps and finally, we had a good digital chart viewer.

You can see where this rolls. If an app company spends $200 a year for the DVDs, divide that by even a thousand users and the unit cost is 20 cents—basically free. And when AeroNav offered downloadable versions of the d-TPP, the product was absolutely free. So all of sudden, what AeroNav was able to charge several hundred dollars for in paper charts has evaporated, eviscerated by a digital revolution no one saw coming, except for maybe Steve Jobs. Against paper chart sales in freefall, AeroNav still has its overhead to maintain, but it's basically been gutting its own paper sales by giving away—at cost or free—the digital equivalent. This trend will accelerate. What appears to be happening is that AeroNav wants to reverse the bleeding by assessing charges for digital data beginning next April.

But here's where things get murky. If AeroNav has to recover its costs—and the code clearly says it does—what's in that cost recovery? If I pay $5.95 for an approach plate booklet, what overhead does AeroNav charge against that break-even price? Are they double dipping here and charging a portion for what they can't legally bill the public for? And if they now want to charge application writers for digital chart data that these businesses enhance and sell, what overhead goes into that charge? Are they just supporting the large cartography staff necessary to turn raw data into finished charts or are they covering other expenses?

Frankly, I doubt there's anything nefarious going on here. AeroNav digital prices have been so low that's it hard to see how they even break even. Their paper products are competitive with Jeppesen, but not necessarily much cheaper. Heretofore, AeroNav has been one of the better divisions in the FAA to deal with—at least for us—and I think they genuinely want a solution that works for everyone.

Where it ran off the rails, however, is that they announced these changes out of the blue and have steadfastly refused to answer any substantive follow-up questions on the topic. The FAA press office simply hasn't returned phone calls or e-mails. (We've sent several of each.) And they've declined to grant our request to attend this week's meeting. It's closed to the press and public. We also recently learned that AeroNav tried to execute non-disclosure agreements with some vendors, a few of which have declined. I suspect the NDAs were signed by some vendors.

Why is a taxpayer-funded government agency trying to operate in the dark like this? It makes no sense. How did we get to the point that we accept that agencies can close such proceedings? Sooner or later, someone in the Congressional GA caucus will get wind of this, if that hasn't happened already, and what should have been a simple, collegial solution will become a political circus.

This week's meeting will have to address a number of issues. First, AeroNav will have to explain itself. Clearly, with paper chart sales declining, it has a revenue problem. How's it going to support its cartography operation with declining sales? A for-profit publisher would just cut costs and probably staff, but can AeroNav do the same work with less? Or will it simply divide its projected shortfall among all the data buyers and send them a big invoice? Or will there be tiered pricing? Or some other plan? Will it jack up the price of paper charts to meet overhead costs?

Understandably, AeroNav needs to hear from vendors and interested companies to figure this out. But what's missing from that process is a public advocate without a vested interest. And that's why the meetings should be open to the press and public. (Our FOIA request for the budget is in the mail.)

The FAA said all along that it would maintain a web site where charts could be viewed, but we don't know if they'll be printable or downloadable en mass, free or pay-per-view or what. AeroNav may not know, either. There's nothing stopping AeroNav from offering its own app and competing directly with the private sector, charging its break-even prices. To me, the best outcome would be an in-the-open tiered pricing structure (no NDAs) that makes it possible for the likes of ForeFlight, Seattle Avionics, WingX or any of dozens of other vendors to compete, because that's where the innovation will come from.

If the vendors have to pay a nominal fee for digital data and pass it on to their subscribers, so be it. We've always paid for charts, whether from Jeppesen or NOS or now AeroNav. But before I get all warm and fuzzy about that idea, I at least want to know how this agency is spending the money we send them. I think they're on the hook to explain that with no further stonewalling.

Comments (36)

Thanks to everyone for their patience while our server team performed database updates. Blog commenting has now been re-enabled, so please take a moment to chime in. We're anxious to hear what our readers have to say on this topic ... .

Posted by: Scott Simmons | December 14, 2011 2:46 PM    Report this comment

Now where did I leave those darn Texaco road maps...?

Posted by: Jay | December 14, 2011 3:36 PM    Report this comment

Thanks once again for providing a cogent, concise report and opinion. Thanks too for sending the FOIA request - wouldn't want the guys in the smoke-filled back rooms to think the tens of thousands of us who subscribe to these services are oblivious to what's going on.

Posted by: Anthony Nasr | December 14, 2011 5:28 PM    Report this comment

With ever-increasing diversion of tax money away from infrastructure requirements in an effort to keep the more politically fruitful "transfer payments" monster afloat, we're going to have to accept with more and more of this.

We can only hope this indirect tax will not end up being so heavy it brings down all innovation in the field.

Posted by: John Wilson | December 14, 2011 7:06 PM    Report this comment

Oops, lose the "with"....

Posted by: John Wilson | December 14, 2011 7:07 PM    Report this comment

I believe in paying taxes, but as any taxpayer, I don't want to pay any more than I have to into an entity that has consistently demonstrated that it's a poor manager of money (i.e., the government in general). I'm with Mr. Bertorelli: full disclosure by AeroNav is in order, and incumbent on them as a "servant" of the people. As soon as it can be determined what is a "fair" cost for the goods, I'm willing to pay it.

Posted by: Jim Hamlett | December 15, 2011 5:20 AM    Report this comment

We pay taxes for the "privilege" of being governed. I am OK if we go ALL a la carte, but I am putting everyone on notice I am not paying for Congress's salary until they start working, welfare for those who will not work, bank bailouts,.....

Seems fair to me that digital information is costs less to produce than paper version and that a fair reduction in price from paper copies would be fair, but not balancing the department's budget by charging "whatever it takes" to cover costs.

Posted by: Stephen Alexander | December 15, 2011 6:09 AM    Report this comment

When the issue first appeared, I went directly to Jeppesen's site to check on the cost of a Jepp View subscription. Just for IFR chart subscription it's in the neighborhood of $700 per year. That's quite a bit more than my $75 for a ForeFlight subscription that includes all the VFR, plus other helpful data. I make frequent trips over a good chunk of the country in a piston single and having this scope of coverage significantly improves the safety margin by insuring I'm not tempted to operate without current data for my entire flight. This system has already provided needed data for an unexpected diversion last spring.

My feeling initially is that I'm comfy with an increase...even to $150 or $200 for a years worth of the current coverage of ForeFlight and or one of it's cousins...but a jump to Jepp-level might drive me to another solution. I don't want to burden other economic sectors so I can have a free ride, but I'd like to avoid being gouged. I look forward to more information on the structure as well as the levels of proposed pricing.

Posted by: Norman Knox | December 15, 2011 7:56 AM    Report this comment

There's no copyright in that data (it's US Government data, and copyright doesn't apply) AFAIK. Worst case, someone needs to get their hands on a single copy (FOIA?) and they can reproduce it all they want.

Clearly, this isn't a good solution. But if FAA wants to play silly b**gers, there are two sides to that coin.

Posted by: Thomas Boyle | December 15, 2011 8:04 AM    Report this comment

I don't have so much a problem (in principle) with paying a nominal fee for charts - we've paid several bucks per paper sectional for a long while now. (And I'd even be ok paying a few bucks per digital sectional too, but not more than what the paper versions cost.) But what's insane to me is not allowing the public to even buy digital charts. Why should only those with distribution contracts be able to digitally obtain this public information? There are application innovators outside the world of the more "known" companies (e.g. Foreflight, WingX, etc.). As a "hobby-developer" myself, I don't want to be stifled in this way either... Why should I have to purchase public data from only "approved" third-parties? I'm afraid if Aeronav's current plan goes through, I'll have to go back to buying the paper... :(

Posted by: Philip Rash | December 15, 2011 8:05 AM    Report this comment

Separately, it seems ridiculous that FAA wants to charge for the equivalent of every chart in the system, when for many of us just 1 or 2 charts are all we usually use.

Posted by: Thomas Boyle | December 15, 2011 8:05 AM    Report this comment

The amazing/disappointing thing is the summary dismissal of any thought of saving costs by the federal goverment. Simply "no" when asked. This is, frankly and simply, UNTRUE. If the federal government had an real form of accountability for OUTCOMES, rather than scoring performance simply by INPUT in the form of fees and appropriations, then there would be some credibility to this proposal. But, having been there for 20+ years - I know, the mindset simply is: If they (congress) gave us the money, they want us to spend it. No sense of "bang for the buck," no measure of performance, and a declining emphasis on "civil" or "service" to the taxpayer or agency clients. I will pay more for my Foreflight subscriptions, but it would be a lot more palatable if the goverment agencies receiving my fees were to be subject to the same economics that affect my business and that of my clients.

Posted by: M Coster | December 15, 2011 8:35 AM    Report this comment

Why all the fuss? We have always paid for charts, why shouldn't we still pay for charts? Just make the price reasonable to account for no more printing, mailing, etc. Give us some logically priced coverage choices, and get on with it. Why on earth would I kick about VFR and IFR coverage of the whole country for $150? Way less than Jepp/Boeing.

Posted by: jon doolittle | December 15, 2011 8:53 AM    Report this comment

Paul: you're asking the right questions. We need to determine if the chart folks' problem is low revenue alone...or low revenue coupled with an excessive staffing problem? For instance, as paper goes away, so should some of the payroll now devoted to supporting that function. Perhaps, with their own new digital tools, the chart division can compose maps and charts at less cost...and if so, their own staffing should reflect this. We don't want to pay more ourselves simply to fund the FAA's inability to appropriately manage its own payroll.

Posted by: Ed Livermore | December 15, 2011 9:25 AM    Report this comment

It's likely that a Foreflight or WingX subscription will end up costing much more than the $150 everyone is talking about. Apple takes a 30% cut of all app sales. In order for the Foreflight or WingX guys to maintain their current profits, subscriptions will have to be close to $300 per year.

Posted by: Mark M | December 15, 2011 9:34 AM    Report this comment

This is going to reduce safety. There are too many scenarios where people will simply avoid this cost at marginal risk which when multiplied by thousands of flights will lead to accidents and deaths. Likely because some bureaucrats can't be upfront about heir actual costs. We need to start keeping online resumes for bureaucrats so we can add this stuff to their public records. "Director Smith was unable to determine his department's budget likely leading to an increase in aviation fatalities."

Posted by: Eric Warren | December 15, 2011 9:49 AM    Report this comment

Correct me if I am wrong. My company pays the FAA chart service over $2000 per year for charts. In the past 4 years we have paid over $17,000 in fuel use taxes and now I am told that I can't download a digital image of the airport diagram off an approach plate from the FAA? You've got to be kidding! Farm the charting out to private business and let them use some common sense!

Posted by: James Lied | December 15, 2011 10:19 AM    Report this comment

One razorblade cut at a time, the Feds and their army of bean counters and lawyers are killing aviation. Those that 'can' or 'must,' will grudgingly afford the cost. The rest will either use old charts or -- worse -- decide enough is enough and find another avocation. It won't be long before they start charging us for 'using' our airspace directly. If any of you haven't read the 1958 FAA authorization mission statement, you should. Right down from safety is the mandate to PROMULGATE aviation in the US. The FAA is trying to make aviation 100% safe while simultaneously ignoring the parallel mandate to help support it. Flying with old charts isn't safe no matter how you dissect it. Phooey! This greying pilot, aircraft owner, mechanic and lover of aviation is about a quarter-inch from throwing the towel in and taking up boating and Corvettes.

Posted by: Larry Stencel | December 15, 2011 10:42 AM    Report this comment

Back in the mid-90's a congressman asked the FAA how much it cost to produce an AD. The answer was we don't know. I got the contract to do a cost accounting study on the cost for AD's. The FAA staff I dealt with were hostile and protective. Worse, they never kept records of time spent on projects. The average cost for an AD was $1 million dollars. They worked hard to get me to lower that number. It is clear that the FAA does not have a culture or concept of cost accounting. I will never trust their internal estimate of the costs. But I would like to get back in there again myself to get a realistic number.

Posted by: Fred Wert | December 15, 2011 10:46 AM    Report this comment

In this environment of increasing reliability and easy access to essential data, i.e. charts and plates, if the FAA wishes to reduce its costs then it should begin to cut back on the published paper material with a goal of eliminating it all together. We now have reliable electronic devises to use for the purpose of information display. Let's use them.

Posted by: Thomas Truett | December 15, 2011 10:59 AM    Report this comment

NOAA handled the production and distribution of aviation charts for a lot of years, until the FAA took over in 2000. The FAA promptly fired most of the smaller aviation chart dealers, and now they're complaining that they're losing too much money because people are using digital charts instead of the expensive paper charts.

I thought the FAA was supposed to provide a service, not to sell things for profit. Maybe they should give the charts back to NOAA. NOAA still does an excellent job with nautical charts, and digital nautical charts are free to download.

Posted by: Bob Webster | December 15, 2011 11:05 AM    Report this comment

It wasn't only Steve Jobs who could have predicted the advance of digital over paper content. It was Glenn Reynolds (see his Army of Davids). Heck, the MPAA and RIAA could have taken a break from paying off congressmen to save a dead technological model and explained it to the 'crats at FAA.

But is it really that the FAA didn't see this coming, or that the FAA didn't care at the worker level, and at the political-appointee level they're as committed as everyone else in DC to crony capitalism in the Solyndra/LightSquared fashion? The way this policy is biased towards the biggest guys sure smells like that. It smells like what economists call "regulatory capture," which has long been an FAA problem.

Posted by: Kevin O'Brien | December 15, 2011 11:53 AM    Report this comment

Privatize the charts? by Jepp? Lockmart? Surely you jest.

$5 million? that's pocket change at the govt level. Add a penney to the fuel tax and make it free to all.

Posted by: Paul Hekman | December 15, 2011 12:20 PM    Report this comment

Reposted by Paul Bertorelli/name withheld

Many issues: 1. The cost recovery goal this coming year is $5M but that could balloon to $27M as paper revenues dwindle. Digital costs will have to go way up to compensate, digital subscribers will go down, costs will go up again, system breaks down. Basic economics. 2. Government CANNOT copyright the charts, by law. The rumor is the vendor agreements will force the vendors to apply a copyright (and possible DRM) to get around this issue. This seems like a brazen violation of the law's intent and one wonders if it is legal to force a third party to apply a copyright on a base work that the original creator did not. 3. The content of the Dec 13th meeting is being kept mostly secret. Email after the meeting from the FAA to attendees says, in part: "we honored our commitment to all of you as to what we posted on our website so as to not disrupt the community per your request." "Here are the link's to our webpage that includes the language we all mutually agreed to make public from the meeting:" Which community would be disrupted by the truth? What information was not agreed to be made public? Was it really the attendees who wanted restricted release of information? That sure sounds like collusion on the release of information between the vendors and the FAA.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | December 15, 2011 1:03 PM    Report this comment

4. The draft agreement reportedly contains language about the FAA being able to audit vendor's subscription lists. Not only is this invasive at a privacy level, but it is costly for vendors. 5. The FAA "disinvited" a number of attendees saying they would be provided with draft documents and minutes. This promise is so far unfulfilled. Thus the actual attendees were FAA selected. 6. No sane mechanism was suggested that allows use of the data on web sites. No web site can survive with $150/year costs to site visitors. Anything more than "free" is probably fatal to being with. 7. A minimum entry price of $25K (rumored block price for first 100 subscribers) will severely disrupt the small developer. This is a barrier to entry to protect the big established vendors. We should be very concerned about this. The whole philosophy reeks of user fees and it won't stop with charts if this is successful.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | December 15, 2011 1:04 PM    Report this comment

The arrogance of the FAA is legendary. This is yet another example of civil servants who work for and are paid by us acting like we "little people" are to be treated as adversaries. This is a public agency with no legal right to withold information that is not classified from the public they serve.

We have allowed bureaucrats to become a de facto ruling class with special compensation and privileges better than most of the taxpayers who pay them. What's next if we let this continue - paying for each weather report?

Posted by: Walt Woltosz | December 15, 2011 1:17 PM    Report this comment

You wrote:

"To summarize, AeroNav is required to recover costs for producing and distributing navigation charts and the management of databases to support that work."

This is a complete misread of the statute. It establishes a ceiling on prices - but no floor. If Aeronav gave away charts it would _not_ be in violation of that statute (e.g "A fee shall be not more than the actual or estimated full cost of the service. A fee may be reduced or waived for research organizations, educational organizations, or non-profit organizations, when the Administrator determines that reduction or waiver of the fee is in the best interest of the Government by furthering public safety." and "The Administrator shall adjust the price of an aeronautical product and service sold to the public as necessary to avoid any adverse impact on aviation safety attributable to the price specified under this paragraph.") If it charged more than _some_ of the costs (but not all - read carefully) then it would be in violation of the statute.

Seems almost impossible to suppress the meme that the FAA is "required" to recoup it costs via chart sales only. The law as written doesn't dictate that. Internal FAA politics might, but that's a different thing and different excuse.

There are lots of things, like VOR maintenance ("please key in your credit card number to navigate using this VOR") that are paid for by general tax funds. Digital charts should be one of them.

Posted by: James Logajan | December 15, 2011 1:48 PM    Report this comment

The FAA is highly incentivized to reduce GA traffic and the associated costs. OTOH, reducing the costs to the airlines, and thus the vast majority of users/voters. Is unacceptable. At the same time the entire system is built for the airlines with minor modifications to accommodate citizens using the airspace in other ways.

This is nothing more than a clever trick to shift costs to GA while reducing expenses at the FAA by reducing GA use. They get more money while reducing pesky GA flyers. It's brilliant in the short sighted, selfish,careerist way of thinking forced upon bureaucrats by their institutions.

Posted by: Eric Warren | December 15, 2011 2:07 PM    Report this comment

I suspect that if FAA refuses to release navigation data to the public, it would be possible to get a court order for its release. 1) FOIA 2) The FAA's regulations require compliance with the navigation data, therefore the data must be made available to those who wish to comply. Once it's released, it's not copyrightable. There's a business model there. First vendor not to agree to participate in the cartel the FAA is trying to set up, can underprice all the others, who will then defect also.

Who should file the lawsuit, do you think?

Posted by: Thomas Boyle | December 15, 2011 3:49 PM    Report this comment

The FAA is now providing both paper and digital charts. One solution would be for the FAA to only provide digital data. Then private vendors would re-sell the digital and/or paper products. I venture that this may entail a reduction in staffing and other costs at the FAA, and thus be able to price the digital data to match the reduced staffing. The vendors would then charge the retail customers. The GA community is surely entitled to scrutinize the FAA charges.

Posted by: Attilio Di Maco | December 15, 2011 6:12 PM    Report this comment

Crying me a river..... In 2008, when the economy fell off a cliff... my company downsized. I'm all for downsizing government. Especially the unregulated regulatory testicles of government.

Posted by: Andre Abreu | December 15, 2011 6:52 PM    Report this comment

From Paul B.: "The whole philosophy reeks of user fees and it won't stop with charts if this is successful." Congress approved and encourages the FAA cost recovery fees disregarding safety and allowing for higher costs of flying. The aviation community does not need this disincentive, especially now when the active pilot population is at its lowest. This is important and should not be allowed as this Aeronav “cost recovery” plan sets a precedent for additional fees in other products and services. As pilots we need to have a stronger voice and better representation as the alphabet groups claiming to be of support are letting powerful legislative details slip through the crevices. Radek Wyrzykowski is a correct activist, his petition on Flight Data Charges was a simple and extraordinary idea creating a good response and spawning unity from pilots across the US. Over 3300 signatures were submitted with a loud and clear message, NO USER FEES. The Aeronav’s December 13 meeting was a formality to let us know how powerful the FAA is and that we are to take the user fees and shut up. We have had and will not have a choice, all we can do is complain and take the hit as we just don’t seem be able to unite strongly enough. Unchecked legislation and the FAA will continue to steamroll over us and the safety of the National Airspace System the FAA is thought to protect.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | December 16, 2011 2:46 AM    Report this comment

I question why no one in the online media has (that I have read, at least) been asking WHY producing digital versions of paper charts causes a price INCREASE. Yes, the sale of paper versions has decreased - that was SUPPOSED to happen...because it's cheaper. Could it be the FAA production model is wrong? Did they reorganize the office and move (or lay off) personnel no longer needed? Is the job of one person (to produce and manage digital data) being done by five? Digital data management is not difficult, but telling someone they're job has been eliminated by a new way of doing business is.

Posted by: Al Secen | December 16, 2011 6:23 AM    Report this comment

"I question why no one in the online media has (that I have read, at least) been asking WHY producing digital versions of paper charts causes a price INCREASE."

Al, you haven't been reading AvWeb, then. We have these very questions before the FAA now. We have asked for budget data and internal costs tracking which they have declined to provide. We have FOIA'd this material. We have an extensive list of questions before the FAA awaiting answers.

Several larger questions are these: Is there duplication of effort here? In other words, is the procedures branch already producing digital-ready material and is AeroNav just massaging? If so, there are huge efficiencies to be gained. Are they featherbedding this agency?

Everyone in the meeting had the impression that the AeroNav simply said they have a $5M shortfall and we're here to discuss how you are going to pay us that. Questions about internal cost control and staff headcount reduction were dismissed out of hand. The discussion centered around their statutory right to collect costs, not making those costs as cheap as possible.

i tend to see this less as a user fee--although it is that--and more an example of government at its inefficient worst.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | December 16, 2011 9:10 AM    Report this comment

There's another issue that's missing in this discussion and that is "How many times must I pay for the same data?" I have a panel-mount GPS (many aircraft have two), a portable GPS and an iPad running both Foreflight and Wing-X. Under the current proposal I have to pay four times for the same data. If I carry paper charts I have to pay again. Use a computer flight planner, pay again. Anybody besides me see the unfairness in this?

Posted by: Marc Rodstein | January 3, 2012 9:52 PM    Report this comment

Aeronav needs 5M per year? 300,000 active pilots? That's a bit less than $20 per pilot per year. Since we all "should" be using this data in some form would this not solve the problem. All issues of whether Aeronav is efficient or not aside. How about a big PAYPAL button on the aeronav site and we donate if we like their service... ;-)

Posted by: neil cormia | January 4, 2012 10:26 AM    Report this comment

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