The Bottomless Pit
Did you ever suffer along with one of life's minor annoyances and then suddenly, for no particular reason, realize you've had just about enough? This is what seems to be going on with many owners who have installed glass cockpits or state-of-the-art avionics and the annoyance is the recurring and escalating costs of the databases necessary to keep these gadgets fed. In today's news columns, we're reporting on just one facet of this problem which I think may get worse before it gets better. If it does get better.
What drew it to our attention is reader mail. When we reported on Garmin's new GTN-series navigators earlier this year, I got a couple of notes from readers genuinely irritated because I had failed to report database costs in the article. I won't make that mistake again. (In a moment, I'll explain why I overlooked it.)
What's going on is that the modern cockpit has become a data-sucking black hole. You need nav databases, terrain databases and chart databases and the boxes in the cockpit don't always share much, although both Garmin and Jeppesen have drifted toward offering package deals, which help some. It's not unusual for data costs to amount to a couple of grand a year or more. Add any portables you might have, plus paper charts and you're spending more on data than on engine reserves.
A new unhappy development, as we're reporting today, is that the FAA next year will stop offering its digital chart data for free. We're not certain what this means yet, but the ominous signal is that it will chill the lively competition among iPad app writers who depend on this data to offer inexpensive or free apps with similarly affordable data.
This is, in effect, a user fee of sorts. Philosophically, I'm not opposed to it, because it costs money to collect, process and disseminate this data. By law, the FAA has to do it on cost-only basis, but still, someone has to pay. And that will those who need the data, either for navigation or charting or both.
I think the revolt I'm sensing through reader e-mail and phone calls is that as there's more and more data that costs more money, owners just don't see the value, especially in a world where the reality is less flying. To a degree, we've created the monster ourselves. GPS instrument procedures are proliferating, each requiring a packet of data, FAA maintenance and correction by revision if something changes. And things are always changing. I'm all for aviation infrastructure, but I think we've gone around the bend with too many GPS approaches far in excess of actual need.
One reader wrote me and said he noticed that a couple of GPS approaches for Ft. Myers, Florida were dropped from his current navigation database. Jeppesen confirmed this. Why? Too much data to process for that cycle; those procedures were dropped to be picked up for the next revision cycle. This begs the question: Why have all this infrastructure if the system to process the data chokes in getting it to users? And with the FAA planning thousands more GPS approaches, this isn't going to get any easier. What we're doing is building a Cadillac — at Cadillac prices — when what we really need for the moment, given FAA budget duress, is a Corolla.
Which leads me to why I often overlook reporting on database costs. It's because I don't believe in them. There, I've said it. It may be like arguing against Boy Scouts and apple pie, but I've always felt the value of regular database updates to be overrated for most Part 91 operations. When we got our first IFR GPS in the airplane, I carried current charts and updated the navigation database once a year; more often if a trip demanded it. I just couldn't see the value of frequent updates and, legally, the AFM allowed checking against current paper. So that's what I did.
And I'd still do that if I had a bunch of database requirements for the airplane, although I'd probably use something like Jeppesen's Mobile FD, which I covered in today's video. Somehow, I think, the industry and owners are going to have to figure out a better path. Now that owners are wising up to the fact that data costs are rivaling what they pay for insurance, some of them won't be owners anymore.