The Age of DIY Service Is Here
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.