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Handing Out Stimulus Money? Let's Save Datalink WX

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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 free—NEXRAD, 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 weather—the folks who don't pay for it already—are 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 eBay—well, 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.

Comments (14)

This suggestion makes so much sense that it should have been done long ago. Our collective aviation organizations should lend the strength in numbers element needed to make it a priority for safety sake.

Posted by: John Hilditch | February 23, 2009 4:36 AM    Report this comment

I'm a fair weather recreational flier. When the weather looks like it's not going to cooperate I leave the plane in the hangar. So I've never been able to justify the price of a subscription to XM. But even a fair weather flier runs into weather sometimes. I sure would have liked to have had in the cockpit weather on a few very memorable occasions. So I'll jump on the bandwagon. Sounds like a terrific idea to me. I'm sure the various alphabets could find statistics (lives lost in weather related crashes that could have been saved with more weather awareness) that would justify the expense.

Posted by: Mike Wills | February 23, 2009 2:47 PM    Report this comment

THIS MAKES TOO MUCH SENSE TO BE IMPLEMENTED BY THE GOVERNMENT! EVERY PILOT COULD AFFORD WAETHER. THIS WOULD BE THE BIGGEST WEATHER SAFETY IMPROVMENT SINCE THE GYRO. WINDS, LIGHTNING AND ICING ARE SOF, NOT BOUTIQUE AND SHOULD BE INCLUDED.

Posted by: John Simmons | February 23, 2009 6:48 PM    Report this comment

This is an excellent idea. It would both maintain near real time services that seem threatened while providing them to all pilots at very low cost (a 396 or 496). It would even make the government look like they were on top of technical developments instead of just planning decade long expensive and complex programs for the future!

Posted by: Rip Sessions | February 23, 2009 7:24 PM    Report this comment

I only fly VFR 2-3 hours per month. I carry a Garmin 396, but I don't have an XM subscription because I can't justify the extra $15/hr it works out to be for me. If they'd offer an on-demand service for, say, $5/day I'm sure I'd use it.

As far as the gov't spending any money to bail them out, I'd be against that but I could support the gov't providing loan guarantees.

I'd hate to see XM Weather go away.

Posted by: Bob Carpenter | February 24, 2009 12:34 AM    Report this comment

Let's see...

$3.2 Billion divided by 400,000 pilots in AOPA's data base equals $8,000 for every active and inactive pilot in America. If we included only active IFR pilots (does anyone have that number?), the cost per-pilot would probably quintuple or worse.

I agree that XMWeather is the greatest thing since sliced bread, but I ask you- do you think you'd get each pilot in America to pony up $8,000 to keep it going? If not, we're talking about committing our grandchildren to paying off the bill on this.

I just worry about adding everyone's favorite pet project to the list of things we expect the government to pay for. If we keep going down this road, pretty son we'll be Switzerland with a 50% tax rate.

Posted by: Ed Winne | February 24, 2009 8:25 AM    Report this comment

Even for VFR flight having METARs and Winds Aloft come in very handy for long trips. Yes, you can call FS if you can raise them.

As for 3.2B, that is the total company debt. I doubt anyone expects the FAA to buy the company outright just for WX. Offering a lower cost loan would be one way of securing WX for the future.

Posted by: neil cormia | February 24, 2009 9:53 AM    Report this comment

I agree with your comments re a handout to virtually everyone - someone has to pay for it sooner or later. On the other hand the Obama administration is committed to pumping $800B into the economy. How much of that do you think is actually going to buy something useful that could save lives? I'd rather spend the money for something like this than hand it to Citi Bank. I do like the idea of an on-demand fee and I would sign up for something like that as well.

Posted by: Mike Wills | February 24, 2009 10:05 AM    Report this comment

gov involvment or not, the idea to make the critical stuff free—NEXRAD, METARs, SIGMETs, and TFRs and Call it the Aviator Free subscription is genius. Once setup with the free stuff, many will upgrade to the graphical TAF with winds, lightning, storms... etc. Very possibly making XM more income from aviators.

Posted by: Janin Dupont | February 25, 2009 10:26 AM    Report this comment

Isn't the likelihood that Sirius will just be chapter 11 reorganized, some of its debt restructured, and its products still sold with nary a hitch? Afterall, as Mr. Vanwest notes, they do have significant revenues. XM weather subscription pricing willlikely change, though.

Posted by: william witrak | February 25, 2009 10:51 AM    Report this comment

At a time when the feds are wasting billions, much of which won't be returned to the public in any meaningful way, this idea is one of the best I've seen yet. Safety will be enhanced as more jump on the cheaper service (so where's the FAA on this? Out making ramp checks I guess). Let's all lobby our lobbyists (AOPA, EAA, NBAA (even they can have radar failure) to make this happen.

Posted by: Marvin Dailey | February 25, 2009 11:02 AM    Report this comment

Having spent 30+ years of Airline flying, I was spoiled with wonderful WX radar. After retiring and buying a small plane I was amazed that data link WX was available. It would be a shame and a loss of a level of safety that XM WX provides if Sirius/XM goes under. Here is an area where govermental control and action just might be appreciated. What do ya think, Obama?

Don Elliott FedEx retired

Posted by: DONALD ELLIOTT | February 25, 2009 11:02 AM    Report this comment

As with so much of our economy, the goods and services are sound, but the greed that converts them into collateral for huge loans enabling their management and investors to anticipate more than their cashflow, bloating their cost to the subscriber but still leaving a burnt out shell got XM too. Did Howard Stern really need more than the GNP of a small country to work for it? Interestingly, one of the earlier commentators indicated the entire XM debt is about $8,000 per licensed pilot. If the debt were not paid but merely carried, the debt service on that would be just about the present cost of an annual subscription and, of course, aviators are only a small segment of the company. So a reorganization of the debt with the Feds subsidizing a portion should be a cheap way of keep allowing the company to survive and providing an invaluable public service. The model of free or cheap basic service for public benefit with add on premium service is exactly what we have in TV. I got it when purchasing a plane with the Garmin 1000 but despite loving it also couldn't justify continuing the subscription as a VFR weekend flyer.

Posted by: Elliott Meisel | February 25, 2009 10:37 PM    Report this comment

Like many other comments, I like this idea in principle, especially if the $8000 figure can be reduced by restructuring the debt, as was suggested, rather than buying the debt (and the company). May I suggest that we as readers as well as the publisher promote this idea to the alphabet organizations and encourage them to conduct a quick feasibility study to be presented to the FAA? Perhaps the new Administrator will see an opportunity to make a quick, positive impact by promoting this. Nice work Mr. Van West!

Posted by: MICHAEL MCMAHON | March 29, 2009 12:09 AM    Report this comment

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