User Fees: AeroNav's Missed Opportunity
The mere mention of aviation user fees sends some of us into apoplectic fits, as well it should. Flying an airplane, much less owning one, has become an increasingly expensive proposition. When the government proposes to charge yet more money for the privilege with no apparent gain, we're rightfully offended.
That was certainly the case last December when the FAA's AeroNav division—the people who make navigation charts and approach plates and who provide the digital source data for those who distribute charts electronically—announced that it intended to begin charging users for the electronic data. Due to declining paper chart sales, it had a budget shortfall and the users would have to make it up with new fees. More cost cutting evidently wasn't on the table.
Unfortunately, the FAA went about this all wrong. First, they assembled about 150 of the smartest people in aviation and whiteboarded for them a proposal that appeared hastily if not ill conceived and whose numbers didn't add up. I've talked to a number of people who attended that meeting and more than one told me AeroNav officials gave the impression of having jotted down their numbers on the back of a envelope on the way to the meeting. They promised more definitive numbers and a proposal by mid-January, but it never appeared. Our queries about its whereabouts have gone unanswered.
The amount of money (an estimated $5 million initially) is much smaller than the underlying principle involved. And this is it: The FAA wants more money from users because market shifts have caused it to lose money on the sales of paper charts and it can't or won't make this up with internal cost cutting. So far, it has been unable to make this case at all, never mind clearly.
Under a FOIA request, we've obtained AeroNav's budget but it's too opaque to make sense of without an understanding of how the agency allocates its expenses in detail. What's needed is a rigorous audit by OMB or GAO, or both, to flesh out AeroNav's cost structure. We've asked both of those organizations for help on this and neither has replied, although AeroNav says its budget and cost information is elucidated here.
Drop me an e-mail if you find any of this convincing. Here's what appears to be happening. Until 2010, the FAA had a flight procedures branch that collected flight data and prepared instrument procedures. It handed that data off to another government division once called NOS and later NACO under the FAA flag. That division interpreted the data, did the drafting and prepared finished charts.
In 2010, the two divisions were consolidated into a single unit called AeroNav. As has every other entity on the planet, the flight procedures branch had been busily digitizing its operations for efficiency and quality control purposes. For some time, it has produced what are essentially finished approach plates. You can view them at this link. Just click around the folders and you'll find the charts.
So before I'll go along with additional fees, AeroNav has to explain why it's duplicating work that appears to be already done by the old flight procedures branch. In other words, isn't the part of the organization that draws the charts for public dissemination now superfluous? Doesn't AeroNav have a huge opportunity to whittle down its size and save taxpayers and us a bundle without resorting to additional charges? I'm from Missouri. Show me.
Government agencies aren't noted for their enthusiasm in downsizing. The reverse is true of all bureaucracies, but even that well-established rule may yield to the overwhelming economics of a disruptive digital technology shift, otherwise known as an iPad. One argument we heard was that AeroNav's charting division—the old NACO—was necessary to assure quality and "safety." But just as I don't buy the GA argument that user fees would diminish safety, I don't buy it from AeroNav, either. It's the same fear and loathing reasoning upon which TSA continues to build its empire.
So the FAA appears to have a real opportunity here. It can apparently realize considerable cost savings by phasing out half of AeroNav. The smart thing to do would be to refine the digital output of the flight procedures branch and place it on a public access server. Then let anyone who wants to download the data disseminate it electronically or print paper charts or both. Get the FAA out of the finished chart business entirely and let the free market sort out prices and details.
Please. Someone tell me why this isn't a better plan than additional fees to the FAA.