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The Age of DIY Service Is Here

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I've been doing some editorial trials of a couple of the satellite trackers, the Spot and the recently marketed (at least to the U.S.) Spidertracks. Interesting technology, and although they're useful and effective, they represent something larger: We're entering the age of pay-for-it-yourself aviation services.

We've actually been getting there for awhile, but with the recent elections, I think you're going to see more of this. The established examples are navigation data and weatherlink data. I got a letter from a reader a couple of months ago explaining that between weatherlink, all the nav data and charts and associated subscriptions, he was spending $1700 a year. Based on his 100-hours a year of activity—this passes for an active pilot these days—that's $17 an hour just for data. It's about equivalent to the engine reserve for an expensive engine.

And what are you getting? Basically, you're getting repackaged government data that your tax dollars have already bought. I'm not suggesting there's no value added there, because there is. The weatherlink providers massage and package the data in useful ways and deliver it and the chartmakers do similarly. The raw data would be useless to you. You feed all this stuff into a glass panel—pay your $700 a year or whatever for data—then decide if you think it's worth it.

The DIY aspect of the satellite trackers is that they are far more effective than your old ELT ever was, including the new 406 models. They lay down the bread crumbs that will point to the crash site. But you pay for that peace of mind—anywhere from $100 to $200 a year. Then you get to decide if you think the value is there.

What's next? I suspect it will be pay-your-own on search and rescue. Spot is already offering a $12.95 a year membership deal to cover up to $100,000 in SAR costs if someone has to pull you out of the swamp somewhere. And you were thinking that sort of thing was free? One interesting example of how awry this thinking can go occurred in a much-celebrated case in Tennessee a month ago in which local fireman responded to but refused to douse a house fire because the owners hadn't paid a $75 yearly fee. (They merely overlooked it, but didn't refuse to pay on principle.)

Carried into the SAR example, this logic would have the rescue personnel dispatch, check you out and unless you were in life threatening situation, they wouldn't rescue you until you produced a VISA number. Given the apparent direction the new Congress and many state legislatures are going, you can expect to see more of this in the next few years. It is going to become a cause.

Basic services such as fire, search and rescue, perhaps some law enforcement and myriad others will become test cases for either privatization or fee services. I suspect user fees for ATC services will come up again if the anti-government crowd gains real traction. And you know the free datalink weather that was supposed to be provided as the FAA builds out ADS-B and FIS? Don't be surprised if becomes fee-based, too.

But what's right here, exactly? As a taxpaying citizen, are you entitled to no-charge search and rescue if your airplane crashes in the wilderness or the Coast Guard fishes you out of the water off Atlantic City? What about the yacht racers or ferry pilots that get into trouble and require expensive long-range ocean rescue? Should they pay for that?

My answer is yes, they should. Further, I also think the other examples—wilderness rescue or inshore marine recovery—should also involve a fair fee that doesn't necessarily cover the entire cost of the operation, but recovers some of it. This puts people who engage in these activities—and yes, that includes pilots—on notice that they have a responsibility to shoulder at least some of the burden of rescue. The risk is thus multi-faceted and you might prepare a little better for it if you know you're on the hook to pay for getting bailed out. Personally, I don't mind the higher taxes that would put these services into the government-citizen contract, but that's not the way we're going. Many want both the low taxes and the services and you can't have it both ways.

What I don't know is where to draw the line. Do you pay for the local cops to come to an accident scene? Or, in the airport context, do you pay yearly service fees for the airport facilities in general, or do you expect the city or country to provide facilities as part of the general tax base? How does that square with reduced taxes? In Florida, the legislature is aiming to reduce property taxes by 19 percent. All of this is going to get tested in the next couple of years.

I do know this: The aforementioned case in Tennessee is an example of this fee-based thinking run completely off the rails. In a civilized society, you simply don't watch a neighbor's house burn down for lack of a $75 fee. That's moral bankruptcy and is simply wrong. You help out and worry about the money later. I'm not knee-jerk opposed to fees for specific services, but I surely don't want to live in a country ruled by that sort of idiocy.

Comments (28)

I grew up in a time where services were provided free to aviation BECAUSE they added to air safety and promoted aviation. Now, sadly, everything in aviation has a "fee" or tax. Today even N Numbers cost you. Gee, so ask me again why private aviation is dying?

Posted by: Mark Fraser | November 8, 2010 1:11 PM    Report this comment

I do think that recsue costs should be bourne by the person needing rescue. If they don't have insurance, or something passing for the same, they can still get rescued, even if over 1000 miles out to sea. But they'd get a bill for the service. I'd even be OK with making such a bill not bankruptable, like back taxes and student loans.

When it comes to other services (e.g. fire, police, etc), it would depend on the local tax system. If I'm paying a line item for fire fighting services on my property taxes (which I do - I checked) I would not expect to be billed for having my kitchen fire put out. If the county wanted to reduce my taxes by that amount and then require pay-to-play for the service when I need it, I'm OK with that too.

At the end of the day, whether its ATC, SAR, police, fire, etc, if our tax dollars are already paying for it, fees should not be imposed (this is a bone of contention I have with National Parks). But if government funding is eliminated then fees should be charged.

Posted by: Andrew Upson | November 8, 2010 2:56 PM    Report this comment

I have to come down on the side of providing robust funding for aviation services as a benefit to society in general. Are we assessed individual taxes based on our domestic and foreign interests and their security by the Department of Defense? No, Defense is a service that is understood to be of benefit to our society. General Aviation is another, though much less well understood, benefit to our society. Package delivery, organ harvesting and transplant, medical lab sample delivery, fish spotting, wildlife management, powerline and pipeline patrol, traffic reports, emergency response and resupply, medevac, etc... are all positive benefits which are provided by General Aviation. Many of them could be done in no other way. So, I have to say that we should be provided with the services that allow us to provide our services to our country. Our fuel taxes already more than pay for the cost of providing services to General Aviation. Let's not give-up and cave in to the insane idea of user fees of any sort. Until my fellow service members are going door to door to collect for the security they provide, I will hold the line with regard to the cost/benefit GA provides.

Posted by: Ken Anderson | November 8, 2010 4:06 PM    Report this comment

While I agree that "general safety"-related services should always fall under the general tax burden (cops showing up at an accident site), I disagree that all taxpayers should pay for the priveleges that a few of us enjoy in our already-expensive hobby.

I'm a boater as well as a pilot, and I know that if my boat breaks down, all the coast gusrd will do is ensure I'm not in danger, then offer to call the tow service. In my mind, that's fair, and I buy towing insurance from TowBoat U.S. to cover the cost of that if it should happen. Similarly, I buy AAA insurance for my car. I also make sure both my car and boat are maintained!

I believe that SAR has 2 components: 1) Finding out what happened to the missing pilot and passengers. and 2) The cost or recovery. The SAR folks should have the right to recover the recovery cost.

Maybe more insurance companies should take an interest in this type of coverage, as TowBoat U.S. and AAA have done.

In any case, it is unfair to the general taxpayer to expect them to shoulder the burden for our mistakes/failures/misfortunes.

Posted by: Ed Winne | November 9, 2010 8:09 AM    Report this comment

Based on my experience in engineering, I suspect Garmin's expense to produce the binary database files needed by *all* of their GPS navigators is probably one day by one midlevel "buildmeister" to take the files from Jepp and run the program that does so.

Circa '06, faced with the FAA decommissioning terrestrial navaids as the switch to GPS navigation was proceeding, the AOPA lobbied the FAA to create a free or low cost digital navigation database. The project was started with great fanfare, and Jepp/Garmin reduced their prices a bit.

Well, the NACO digital database is now a reality, but no GPS navigator manufacturer is using it. I suspect Jepp is one of the few subscribers, and that it's made it easier for them to track changes.

I've no doubt Jepp has some great value added in their product, but safety would be served by everyone having the minimum required database updated regularly.

THere's a market for the NACO database, and until GPS manufacturers are required top process the public database, they won't.

The AOPA stopped lobbying for the low cost option after the Jepp/Garmin monopoly dropped their prices. Despite the subscription price being on an escalator now, it doesn't look like the AOPA is interested in doing anything to upset their biggest advertisers.

Posted by: Greg Goodknight | November 9, 2010 3:38 PM    Report this comment

By the way, the story about the fire department letting the house burn is a bit more interesting and less applicable to aviation than at first glance. The fire department is that of a nearby town. The county doesn't have its own fire department in the area, and county residents are expected to pay their fees directly to the city fire department.

The city fire department had responded to that very home in the past, and was willing to put out that first fire with the promise to pay up. Well, since then they'd let that lapse. I'm guessing that fire department now has much less problem collecting on those subscriptions.

Posted by: Greg Goodknight | November 9, 2010 3:48 PM    Report this comment

I think you're jumping quickly on the new Congress. Basic public services and rescue services are a mere fraction of the Government's budget. Congress is after wasteful spending, not all spending. But who's to say they will even succeed?

Posted by: Jon Devine | November 10, 2010 12:31 PM    Report this comment

Congress is after wasteful spending, not all spending.<<

I would beg to differ. Congress is after politically palatable cost cutting, not that which is necessarily good or bad for the country at large. The primary test for cost cutting is...will this help our party stay in power? That has been the pattern for at least 30 years. But it wasn't always true to the extent that it is now. Although he may have thought it, Sam Rayburn never would have said my number one goal is make sure Dwight Eisenhower isn't re-elected. Neither would have Joe Martin, his Republican counterpart with whom he traded the house speakership.

Because of budget shortfalls and declining tax base, local governments will have a range of services on the chopping block. Here in Florida it will be education cuts, garbage collection and my guess is the county's law enforcement aviation division will be cut, among many services.

I am too cynical to expect these budget challenges to be executed with anything remotely like wisdom and fairness, given the current political climate.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | November 11, 2010 6:50 AM    Report this comment

"NACO digital database is now a reality, but no GPS navigator manufacturer is using it."

Mine does. The trouble is that the database is far more limited than what other manufacturers have put together.

Posted by: Mark Fraser | November 11, 2010 7:12 AM    Report this comment

Hi Mark F - Which GPS is that that uses the free NACA database?

Sounds like that would be useful for a 100 hour a year VFR pilot. Thanks

Posted by: MARC SALVISBERG | November 12, 2010 10:21 AM    Report this comment

If I get lost or crash I should pay for the rescue. Why should people who didn't take any chances pay to take care of me?

We would be better off it everything was pay for service(or free non government like fltplan.com). They provide better service and don't have to steal money from someone who doesn't participate in aviation. Telephone briefings in particular should not be payed for by the taxpayers, there are plenty of free or low cost internet alternatives, if you don't want them that is your choice, but don't expect the taxpayers to pay for your preference. Of course, what is good for the goose is good for the gander. If I have to pay for my aviation, other people should pay their own security(TSA)and any other optional things that a person may choose to participate in.

Your butt on the line, you pay for it.

Posted by: Roy Zesch | November 12, 2010 11:18 AM    Report this comment

Paul I really enjoy your free spirited literary intellect, but I suspect you were the little boy in the back of the classroom that told the pretty little girl she had a spider on her back just to watch her jump. In math we were taught to insert negative infinity, zero and infinity to look at the properties of an equation, or in this case a proposal. We won't use neg. infinity since that would be getting money back not paid in and that's ridicul . . . NO wait that's happening with income tax, so let's just use zero and infinity to analyze cost vs. benefit (or unintended consequence) of the "user fee" system. BTW I agree with Gregg and see the health care issue in the same lite: Don't buy till needed, but that's another story, and as an aside, I wonder what happened to their "collection plate" the next day? My home airport, CXO lobbied for and obtained a control tower to attract more business jets/turbojets etc and increase the more lucrative clientele. They based the need on the total number of operations, of which we "little" SEL guys are the predominant part. If they drive us out via charges, they'll probably loose the tower. How does one evaluate those unintended consequences? We have a very good avionics shop primarily supported by SEL aircraft. If/when they leave, what value do you subtract. Donald Trump, NETJETS, GM etc will still fly, but I may not.

Posted by: Burns Moore | November 12, 2010 11:36 AM    Report this comment

Let's not even think about the number of pilots that'll turn of the XPONDER and sneak in under the wx. How will one evaluate the safety issues & attendant costs? One things for sure, if that "sneaking in under the wx" to avoid user fees crash happens you'll be sure to hear the cry "Get those little SOB's out of the sky" and a whole bunch of new restrictions. Too hard for me to figure, but Paul, if I ever sit next to you, I'll be very watchful. Best of luck.

Posted by: Burns Moore | November 12, 2010 11:36 AM    Report this comment

Let's not even think about the number of pilots that'll turn of the XPONDER and sneak in under the wx. How will one evaluate the safety issues & attendant costs? One things for sure, if that "sneaking in under the wx" to avoid user fees crash happens you'll be sure to hear the cry "Get those little SOB's out of the sky" and a whole bunch of new restrictions. Too hard for me to figure, but Paul, if I ever sit next to you, I'll be very watchful. Best of luck.

Posted by: Burns Moore | November 12, 2010 11:37 AM    Report this comment

The problem I have found when the subject of "user pay" rescue operations comes up, is where does one draw the line? Every time there is a high profile rescue in the mountaineering world (similar in my view to aviation), there are screams from the public to charge for the costs. However, the vast majority of rescue costs throughout the country are for much more lowly pursuits such as fishing, hiking, etc. Then we have car accidents that may have been caused by people who shouldn't even be behind a wheel. Should all these cases be charged for their rescue costs? If you talk to the rescuers, they will normally not support user-pay systems, as they think it will deter people from calling the authorities until more damage is done, AND they need these rescues as training excercises anyway.

Posted by: Steve Elder | November 12, 2010 12:23 PM    Report this comment

Fire protection, rescue services and the like are among those rarely-encountered hazards the cost of which we typically expect to handle via some kind of “insurance” arrangement. In other words, we spread the cost over a large pool of payers so, if needed, the service does not bankrupt the individual who receives it.
Historically, the “insurance” carrier for fire protection has usually been the government, who mandates full participation via taxes. Mandatory vehicle liability insurance, the cost of which might as well be considered a tax, is another example. These mandates make sense, because fire and the crashing vehicle both tend to spread their damage to nearby citizens.
When you branch out into other ‘services’ justification for the universal participation model starts to fray somewhat. In the case of health care, rescue services, etc, people start to take notice of the fact that the majority is paying bills run up by a minority. So the justification really boils down to “it is the moral thing for society to do”, a pretty amorphous concept. As Paul and others noted, where do you draw the line?

Posted by: John Wilson | November 12, 2010 1:29 PM    Report this comment

According to the FAA's NACO, the National Flight Database has as data elements "Airports and Heliports; VHF and NDB Navigation Aids; Fixes/Waypoints; Airways; Departure Procedures (DPs); Standard Terminal Arrival Procedures (STARs); GPS, RNAV (GPS) and GPS Overlay ("or GPS" in title) Standard Instrument Approach Procedures (SIAPs) with their associated Minimum Safe Altitude (MSA) data; Special Use Airspace (SUAs); and Controlled Airspace (Class B, C, and D)."

I'm good with these. While it's nice having ILS and LOC approaches in the database, I can legally perform those with either my CNX80 LOC/ILS capability or that of my KX-155/GS.

I have no doubt that were the NFD supported by Garmin, the NFD would get better, and the Jepp would get cheaper. However, I doubt the AOPA will get their old voice supporting this back until they're more afraid of losing subscriber/members than losing Jepp or Garmin advertising revenue.

Posted by: Greg Goodknight | November 12, 2010 3:55 PM    Report this comment

It is true that federal spending is totally out of control and has to be reduced. I heard today that fed income is 17% of GDP per year and spending is 28%. Talk about not sustainable! The new House will have to make huge cuts in federal government expenses including aviation services. Either we will have pay for the services or fly aircraft that don't need fed services.

I often wonder how federal control of aviation fits with the enumerated powers defined by the Constitution. Each state defining laws governing aviation doesn't make sense but the federal government doesn't have the authorization provided by the Constitution.

Posted by: DANA NICKERSON | November 12, 2010 9:32 PM    Report this comment

We pay taxes for what? That the staffs for these services can sit idly by until we call for them, then we pay again? If so I propose they get paid by commission and give me the tax money back.

Posted by: Michael Mahoney | November 13, 2010 8:38 AM    Report this comment

"Each state defining laws governing aviation doesn't make sense but the federal government doesn't have the authorization provided by the Constitution."

Actually, this type of Federal activity is justified by the "interstate commerce" provision. When an activity crosses state lines the Feds have generally asserted control, and as Dana indicates, it makes sense. Who wants to be responsible for knowing and adjusting to fifty different sets of rules for one activity?

Posted by: John Wilson | November 13, 2010 10:48 AM    Report this comment

Why does a teenager who has never paid taxes collect $400-800 a month for having a child and pilots who pay taxes (probably 90%+ of pilots do) would pay again for their safety. Maybe priorities must be reassessed. Should we pay to "use" a traffic light? No it is tax-funded for general benefit of society, why is ATC any different. Whether you drive or not you pay for the roads (if you pay taxes) what different for ATC?

Posted by: Guy Rosenschein | November 13, 2010 11:58 AM    Report this comment

We all pay for these services one way or another. The only questions are whether or not the inefficiencies of government should be involved and if it is right to force those that choose not participate to pay for our activities.

Posted by: MICHAEL GIBBS | November 13, 2010 3:28 PM    Report this comment

I think we have to be very careful with this line of argument. As was mentioned earlier, the 10th Amendments Commerce clause allows the Fed. gov't (and most argue pay for) to provide those enumerated services that further interstate commerce. But to the point, if "user fees" become the operative standard where do we stop. Why, if this becomes the standard, should people with no or raised children pay for schools, or society to support museums, athletic facilities or Coast Guard for that matter. Because they all further the common good, as does the FAA/ATC.

Posted by: Burns Moore | November 13, 2010 4:51 PM    Report this comment

The short-sightedness of the "teenager with a child" statement overlooks the welfare of the CHILD...which is what the money is intended for. (Same sort of nearsightedness is the argument "I don't have kids. Whey should I have to pay for public education?" Doh.

Posted by: George Horn | November 14, 2010 9:09 PM    Report this comment

>>It is true that federal spending is totally out of control and has to be reduced. I heard today that fed income is 17% of GDP per year and spending is 28%<<

I'm always curious when I see statements like this and wonder where they come from. Some of it comes from ignorance, some from willful disinformation. I heard an analysis yesterday of phony economic claims made by politicians. One said the government has spent more in the last two years than in all of its previous history combined, an absurd, easily disprovable bit of tripe.

To really understand current government spending trends, you need to go to source documents from the government budget offices, the Federal Reserve branches and to independent, non-partisan sources. I can provide some if anyone is interested. But you're better served to crunch the numbers for yourself.

Two key areas are important to examine. One is state and local government trends, which relates directly to this provision of services discussion. The other is revenue trends and where the U.S. fits in the world scheme with government revenue as a percentage of GDP. The results of this analysis are revealing.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | November 15, 2010 5:30 AM    Report this comment

This is the same attitude that pervades our society. The libertarian philosophy that everything should be paid for by users, nothing is for the good of society or the country. Ridiculous.

To have a country that we want to live in some things are necessary and we have banded together to provide them. Air travel infrastructure is one of those things. Roads and stop signs are another.

I don't want everything to be metered and billed by usage. I don't want all roads to be toll roads, a dime here a quarter there.

Posted by: Steve Waechter | November 19, 2010 1:50 PM    Report this comment

"The libertarian philosophy that everything should be paid for by users, nothing is for the good of society or the country. Ridiculous."

Yes, most caricatures are meant to be ridiculous. This one is as libertarian as it would be to refer to leftists as those who want everything 'good' to be subsidized and everything bad to be criminalized.

The problem with apportioning the costs of air travel infrastructure is that it's an expensive system designed to meet the needs of turbine powered transports that is overkill for the needs of the piston fleet.

The problem of charging GA (at least the GA that isn't flying jets) for each use of ATC services is that safety will be compromised. When I fly across the Sacramento valley into San Jose or Oakland, whose safety is best being served... mine, or the folks in the transports whose pilot knows where and at what altitude I am, and what's easier for ATC... giving me a vector for traffic, or giving vectors to the transport for avoiding a blip at an unverified altitude and path, and having that ripple through the system?

Posted by: Greg Goodknight | November 20, 2010 2:31 PM    Report this comment

I completely agree that someone who does not benefit from a service should not have to pay for it. However, it's not all that easy in reality.

How do we go about finding that person? Bring him to me and I'll pay his share of the tax. We need to realize that if we go to the grocery store to buy food, it had likely been transported by highway or air at some point. If not, likely an employee of the store has used a highway or aviation service at some point.

How do you determine individual cost for police and fire services? It's easy to figure a cost for services if your neighbor has a burglary and police respond and investigate, but how do we figure YOUR share of the expense because police presence may have deterred the burglar from YOUR house?

In a civilized society certain services and related expenses are necessary and should be shared by all. However, if you can find that person who does not benefit at all, bring him to me!

Posted by: Gary Counihan | November 22, 2010 1:23 PM    Report this comment

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