Next? Death of the Approach Plates
If you spent any time in the military, you may have heard the phrase "steadying the horses" as a euphemism for a dated procedure that makes no sense. It refers to a story, perhaps apocryphal, in which 20th century Army investigators once discovered that artillery crews couldn't increase their rate of fire because the field manual required waiting 20 seconds between rounds to steady the horses that once drew the caissons, but hadn't for 50 years.
As I've continued evaluating the new iPad mini, it occurs to me that we have lots of horse steadying going on it aviation, no more so than with the format of the approach plate. Anyone who evaluates a new tablet will, sooner rather than later, call up a plate and see how it looks on the display. It's a fact that neither the iPad, the mini nor any of 7-inch tablets will display a plate full size suitable for the typical 45-year-old presbyope to comfortably read. So you pinch scale it up and view it in sections. No biggie, really.
But it is a compromise. Even as tablets improve in leaps and bounds, their escalating capabilities continue to be hobbled by having to display a paper graphic standard created 70 years ago. Now I know all the arguments to retain the familiar plate design, most of which are rooted in overblown claims that standardization equates to safety. It sometimes does, but on the other hand, as an instrument instructor, I spent a lot of time training students to look through all the clutter on a typical plate to pick out maybe five bits of relevant data.
We all know we're eventually going to abandon the standard approach plate graphic format, we just don't know when. The accelerating pace of tablet acceptance will, I hope, eventually force the issue. And we're at a good juncture for this to happen. We've previously reported on the FAA AeroNav division's desire to charge more for its data to offset dwindling revenue from the sale of paper products. If the government and the FAA in particular are really serious about saving money, why not ride the breaking tablet wave, do away with AeroNav's cumbersome drafting process and start working on formats that suit these devices?
What that would be, probably, is not a tif of some new paper design but a data-driven approach that would allow the app itself to draw an approach graphic optimized for its display capabilities. I'm told that if apps aren't capable of this now, they eventually will be and not very far in the future.
The FAA and vested interests—AeroNav and perhaps Jeppesen—may resist a change like this simply because of inertia. But as tablets get cheaper, more capable and easier to use, the pace of their adoption will accelerate and sheer market momentum will likely force a tipping point away from paper.
I'm not sure of the timeline of this, frankly. But I'll place my bet now: Within three years, you'll see the first innovative new approach-plate graphic designed specifically for tablet display. When you press the airport icon, followed by the approach you want, it will be there perfectly scaled and readable.
We're getting long overdue to put these horses back in the barn permanently.