ADS-B: Time to Stop Procrastinating?

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Prices have dropped, the FAA has completed installing the ground stations and an average of 100 airplanes per day will have to be upgraded to meet the deadline. You don't want to be at the end of the line.

I hear it consistently, “Yeah, I’ll do the ADS-B bit later, once there are more boxes to chose from and the price comes down, I’ve got lots of time.”

Maybe not. While the sky is not falling, pilots are notorious for procrastinating when it comes to compliance with regs—ask any AME whether the demand for flight physicals is higher at the beginning or end of the month. Did you take your flight review at the beginning or the end of the last possible month? On top of that, when aircraft owners talk about compliance by the year 2020, they act as if it’s the end of that year, not the first day, so they subtract 2014 from 2020 and think they’ve got more than six years before the time runs out.

Perhaps if they thought of the deadline as the end of 2019, it would be more real—there’re a little more than five and a half years to go. However, there are more than 150,000 airplanes affected by the ADS-B regulations and avionics shops tell me they haven’t exactly been deluged with compliance business. I’m seeing estimates that to make the end of 2019 deadline, 100 airplanes are going to have to be upgraded every business day. So far, that's not happening. Do you really want to be near the end of the line when owners wake up?

An Extension?

Will the FAA extend the deadline? That’s anyone’s guess, however, the facts are that aircraft owners were told about the end of 2019 deadline back in 2011, our free-enterprise system has already generated a nice selection of compliant boxes and the FAA beat its own deadline for installing the needed ADS-B ground stations. That combination makes it unlikely, in my opinion, that the FAA will grant an extension for compliance. Although, I can already hear the whining in 2019, “But I didn’t know…”

Then there are those who figure that they can ignore the requirement and it will go away and the “expletive not deleted gummint can’t make me do this” crowd that will either sell their airplanes in 2019 or be barging into their local avionics shop on December 15 and demanding that it get their airplane done by New Year’s Eve that year. I’m going to avoid avionics shops that month.

There will be a real mess in 2019 as procrastinators scramble. I suspect shop rates are going to do nothing but go up in the future. Prices for boxes may drop, but they already have dropped a fair amount—and any future price drop may be offset by increased shop prices. So, maybe it’s time to bring ADS-B out of the “I’ll worry about it in a couple of years” file and stick it in the “time to figure out what I’m going to do and do it” pile.

For those who want or need to finance ADS-B compliance, the NextGen GA Fund has a pile of money to lend at low rates. I don’t know why the Fund is not doing more to get the word out; especially if an owner is going to do a bit of aircraft refurbishing along with ADS-B compliance. Being able to get attractive financing is a win-win for owners and shops.

A Little Background

As part of switching to a more modern method of air traffic control—away from the limitations of radar as the primary way of keeping aircraft apart—the FAA has mandated that all aircraft be equipped with approved devices that automatically report where they are (GPS position and altitude) and their velocity to ATC once per second as of January 1, 2020. There is an exception for, somewhat simplified, aircraft that fly where they aren’t currently required to have a transponder.

The mandate means your aircraft has to have ADS-B Out. The rules say that the transmitting device in your aircraft has to get its positioning information from a WAAS GPS and the device must be panel-mounted. It cannot be a portable unit. It will cost a bare minimum of about $2,500 to install what is needed to comply, and it will only be that cheap if your aircraft already has a Mode S transponder that can be upgraded. Otherwise, figure on $5,000 as a starting figure.

What’s In It For Me?

The beneficiary of ADS-B Out is ATC—far more accurate position and velocity data on aircraft.

Big deal. To quote the unofficial motto of Chicago, “Where’s Mine?” Pilots benefit from increased accuracy of ATC because of ADS-B Out, but unless their aircraft are also equipped with ADS-B In, they probably won’t see that benefit unless they’re talking with a controller who steers them away from a mid-air. I’m told it will also mean you will get routed "via direct" more often when IFR because of the increased accuracy, but I’m not holding my breath on that benefit coming to pass.

The benefit for pilots is ADS-B In. ADS-B Out is the stick the FAA hit owners with; ADS-B In is the carrot—and it’s a pretty juicy one. ADS-B In means accurate information about traffic around you (free) and datalink, real time weather in flight (also free). Being able to get rid of the monthly subscription fee you’re paying for in-flight weather as soon as possible means the savings start adding up sooner and may help put a dent in the cost of the ADS-B Out installation.

Plus, there’s no requirement that your ADS-B In device be panel mounted—it can be portable. A lot of pilots are using a Stratus ADS-B receiver and looking at the traffic and weather information on an iPad. You can have both ADS-B Out and In with panel mounted avionics—but you don’t have to. Garmin, Bendix/King, Avidyne and Aspen have put up massive amounts of information about their ADS-B solutions, so there is no shortage of data available as you decide how you’re going to comply with the ADS-B Out mandate.

More Compliance Products Coming?

Is there going to be a wider selection of ADS-B equipment in a year or two? Probably. However, the industry heavyweights have already come out with products at prices that are competitive with each other—so there’s not a lot of incentive for them to come up with something else new. I suspect they’ll just tweak what’s out there. The product availability curve climbed steeply over the last two years, but it seems to be leveling off. While there will probably be some more new ADS-B Out compliant boxes showing up on the market, it certainly won’t be at the rate we’ve seen.

Why Wait?

I’m hearing from pilots who are on the financial edge of still being able to afford to own an airplane and fly it—they tell me that ADS-B compliance is just going to be too expensive, so they’ll sell their airplanes in 2019. In addition, a significant portion of our aging pilot population is not sure they’ll still be flying in 2020, so they’re waiting to see whether they are going to comply or sell their airplanes. On the surface that logic makes sense. However, it means that those procrastinators may pay a big price for delaying and then either complying or selling non-compliant airplanes.

I can’t help but wonder if there isn’t going to be a cratering of general aviation aircraft prices in 2019 as owners unload rather than spend the money to upgrade. It may be a good year to be a buyer.

Conclusion

Now may be the right time to take care of ADS-B compliance. There’s plenty of product out there, avionics shops are not swamped and the price may be as low as it’s going to get. Maybe it’s the economics major in me, but I keep thinking about cost curves when there’s a new product with a deadline for its installation. At first the price is high as there’s a limited supply of product and installers are going through the learning process. The cost curve trends down as competition among manufacturers leads to lower prices and shops get used to doing installations. It flattens out as the market matures and people wait “a while longer” before complying. Then it starts trending up at an increasinly steep rate as the procrastinators realize they’ve got to buy and install soon—with demand and backlog driving prices up. I don’t know if we’re at the bottom of the curve right now, but I suspect we’re close.

Rick Durden is the Features/News Editor of AVweb, Senior Editor of Aviation Consumer and the author of The Thinking Pilot’s Flight Manual or, How to Survive Flying Little Airplanes and Have a Ball Doing It Vol I.