The collective sigh of relief among all-weather fliers was almost audible when Sirius XM got a bye this week in the form of $530 million in loans from Liberty Media (parent company of Direct TV). Datalink weather in the cockpit is possibly the best improvement to cockpit safety and mission capability since GPS.
But don't get feeling too cozy that your cockpit weather is safe forevermore. Sirius XM owes $3.2 billion in bad debt. Sirius XM can cover loan paybacks for now and barely get over ones that come due in May. And Liberty's loan is at a crushing 15 percent when it comes due in 2012. (The irony in the Sirius XM merger is that they were supposed to be able to secure cheaper credit as one company. Nice timing there.)
Liberty's motives may be multi-fold here, but you can bet guaranteeing weather data for pilots isn't even on the long list. With stimulus money flowing like water from Washington these days, how about having the Feds come up with super-low interest loans on long term for a good chunk of the $3.2 billion? What could be worth that?
FIS-B, that's what.
Forget about waiting until 2020 to make basic datalink cockpit weather free to all pilots. Do it now. Just make the critical stuff freeNEXRAD, METARs, SIGMETs, and TFRs. Call it the Aviator Free subscription. If you have a portable or cockpit-mount receiver (XM or Sirius) you get free basic weather immediately. There's still plenty of room for subscription services to sell TAFs, winds aloft, ground-based lightning at a higher service level and icing products and animated NEXRAD at the boutique level. In fact, it might actually boost subscriptions as datalink weather is highly addictive.
The DoD did something much like this to save Iridium in 2000, when it bought a 20,000-person, unlimited-use plan for a mere $42 million a year. This bailout may seem bigger, but Sirius XM is still pulling in $2 billion annually in revenue. Their problem is debt. And if there's one thing our government is good at these days, it's taking on debt.
This means we can decouple datalink weather from the sticky details of our NextGen air traffic control system. FIS-B always seemed like some feel-good, add-on to make the bitter pill of ADS-B equipage more palatable. The added rub is that the folks who would benefit most from free weatherthe folks who don't pay for it alreadyare the ones most likely to need the cheapest route to ADS-B compliance. That's going to be ADS-B out only, so they won't get weather. But if you make basic weather a free service and put the cost of entry at a used Garmin GPSMAP 396 snagged off of eBaywell, now you're talking accessibility to all.
And given what the FAA usually pays for things, getting it for a billion-dollar loan sounds like a bargain.