ADS-B: Defy Authority!
A good friend of mine who’s an aircraft broker called me this week to ask for my take on what to do about ADS-B installations. He has to have a ready answer for buyers and sellers of legacy airplanes who are asking about this. What was I telling people, he wondered, laboring under the misguided assumption that I’m some sort of seer. He’s pretty sure the whole NextGen thing is going to run off the rails and that the Jan. 1, 2020, ADS-B mandate will be pushed back.
While I’m pretty sure I agree with him, that’s not what I tell people when they ask. Or, more accurately, I tell them not to bet on the mandate slipping as a reason to delay installing the equipment. The FAA insists that it will not be moved back and the more it insists this earnestly before hearings in Congress, the more likely it is to happen, in my view. That’s just the way of it. We live in a post-truth, post-consequence and post-reality world in which we’re in a perpetual state of being gaslighted senseless.
I may, in fact, be a victim of this myself, which explains my reason for telling people to just put the damn equipment in and stop bellyaching about it. My reasoning is thus: If you believe the date will be pushed back and it isn’t, it’s possible that delaying will get you into the witching hour. Shops will be too backed up to fit in rush orders and you could be on the beach for a while, unable to fly your airplane in airspace where you really want to go. You might also pay more for the installation than you might otherwise since shops certainly aren’t going to be offering discounts if they’re booked to the rafters with ADS-B work.
My impression is that shops are already getting booked up with about 30 months left until the mandate. On the other hand, if you don’t need or plan to fly in the mandated airspace—basically where Mode C is required now—no need to equip. Ever. Putter around the tulies; don’t worry, be happy. You could also hold out for some dramatically cheaper solution. I doubt it’s coming, but be my guest.
Increasingly, I am hearing an interesting argument and it’s this: No one is really sure what the size of the active GA fleet is and/or how many of those owners think they need ADS-B. If the real fleet size is considerably smaller than imagined, the feared logjam may never materialize. Roll your airplane into the shop Christmas week 2019 and pick it up the day after New Year’s. Run your own book on that one. I have no data to support it pro or con. The chip you’re putting on the table is immediate airspace access—or lack of it—and this may be of zero value to you.
I hear two other arguments against installing ADS-B. The money complaint and the principle complaint. The money argument is that at a price of $4500 and up, ADS-B is still just too expensive. The principle argument is that people don’t like government mandates and don’t like to be told what they have to do. (Warning: preaching-to-the choir paragraph follows. Reader discretion advised.)
Even $4500 is a total outrage, for which we draw no conceivable benefit. And I am damn tired of the government meddling in my life and forcing me to do things like participating in a multibillion-dollar program that curtails my right to fly. There. If that shoe fits, go ahead and slip it on. I consider it complete rubbish.
Flying airplanes at any level is some form of expensive. It ain’t fishing. It has always been expensive. It will always be expensive. In the grand arc of history, ADS-B equipage is just another blip in the data. Our surveys indicate that everyone who has installed ADS-B is happy with the decision. They like the free weather and traffic data in an integrated, panel format. That’s the benefit. As for the principle, personally, I consider speed limits, edicts against lane splitting, airport security gates, control towers at sleepy airports and chicken^%$# rules of all kinds to be affronts to the dignity of civilized living. I go along because having my head knotted in a perpetual game of whack-a-mole is not my thing and pissing off people who do embrace chicken^%$% rules is just impolite.
Now, on to why I think the mandate will slip. I think the coming scandal is that NextGen really will run off the rails because the FAA lacks the technical expertise to manage it. It consists of many moving parts and I think it will soon be revealed that the moving parts themselves don’t work very well and they work even less well when expected to integrate into a rational whole. My prediction is that this will become a thing around next summer or fall.
One of the early pieces of NextGen, called ERAM, for En Route Modernization, is an early component of NextGen. It basically replaces the Host processing suite Centers used for flight data management. It was supposed to be done by 2010, but didn’t go formally active until five years past that. The DOT’s Inspector General reported serious flaws in ERAM, found it behind schedule and over budget by $500 million.
Contract management was a big part of this and the IG found that FAA staff chronically failed to fill in top executives about problems with the system. Yet … $6 million on contract bonuses were paid Lockheed Martin, even though the milestones for the bonus weren’t met. And the really complex part of NextGen is yet to come: stitching all these discrete systems into a coherent whole.
Will this be enough to tank the 2020 mandate? No one really knows, because no one can predict political climate change. Offsetting the chaos is the coming tsunami of drones that will have to integrate into the national airspace system and it seems inconceivable that ADS-B won’t be a player in this. The FAA hasn’t gotten it beyond the whiteboard stage yet, at least for public consumption.
So my advice to people who ask is to just compartmentalize the decision. Don’t worry about whether the mandate will stick or not, just absorb the cost and focus on the twin benefits of datalink weather in an easily digestible format and pretend that TIS-B (the traffic) will actually save your life one day. Otherwise, follow Satchel Paige’s ageless advice: If your stomach disputes you, lie down and pacify it with cool thoughts.