FCC ELT Rule A Bad Joke?


AVweb used to run an April Fool’s edition that was popular but ultimately confusing. As Internet news evolved, our reputation as a trusted source of accurate information about GA conflicted with the devil-may-care attitude that governed some sites.I only took part in one of the April 1 editions and it was a challenge coming up with stories that had a ring of truth but were obviously bogus. One aviation site continues to do this but it’s become tedious.Well, it’s a long way from April 1 and the FCC handed us a masterpiece of contradictory and ridiculous proposed rulemaking that would have rated the lead story in our more playful era. The Federal Communications Commission says it’s going to outlaw the use of 121.5 ELTs by August.Huh?Does that mean that if you don’t crash and set off your FAA-legal 121.5 ELT you’re OK: nobody is going to snip your rabbit ears?This is such rich territory for an editorial piece that restraint is in order or we’ll be here all day.There was no consultation and it simply cannot happen in time to keep everyone legal. It would probably take two years just to supply the 300,000 or more 406 ELTs the FCC says should replace the 121.5s. And what about the 406s that also do 121.5?The relative merits of such a simplistic approach to using available technology to find crashed airplanes also must wait for another blog.In this case, there are only two possible scenarios.

  1. This is the epitomy of dumb-ass lack of communication between government departments who actually have a lot in common and should know better. In that case, this should be fixed up very soon.
  2. Or, if the experience of the U.S.’s neighbor to the north is any reference, this might have been planned all along.

Transport Canada recently mandated 406 ELTs for all aircraft flying in Canada (including foreign-registered aircraft). It happened after about 10 years of intense public discussion between industry stakeholders, the government and the military, which does search and rescue in Canada.Kevin Psutka, president of the Canadian Owners and Pilots Association, claims the Canadian Forces essentially demanded 406 compliance from the government and he thinks the same kind of effort resulted in the FCC announcement. He just thinks the military was smarter in the U.S. and did an end run around the FAA, which didn’t seem very interested in forcing airplane owners to spend considerable money to “upgrade” to a system that doesn’t really work any better at finding crashed airplanes than the 121.5-based system (ELTS are notoriously unreliable).Granted, the lack of satellite coverage for the 121.5 alerts. which was cut off in 2009, makes 121.5 even less effective but Psutka says that’s a matter of convenience for the military in Canada and the Coast Guard in the U.S. Because 406 ELTs send out the name and phone number of the registered owner, dispatches to false alarms are theoretically reduced.False alarms are an expensive problem and need to be addressed but simply trading one unreliable system for another unreliable system that can theoretically provide slightly more accurate information doesn’t make any sense when most of us already have a device in our cars or shirt pocket that can do so much more.There are much better ways to track airplanes available off the shelf today and forcing aircraft owners to comply with ancient technology that doesn’t work very well (ELTS frequently fail because they’re destroyed on impact, their antennae are wrecked or obscured, or the crash fails to generate the forces necessary for activation) is at best counter productive.In the FCC’s proposal, it’s patently stupid.Psutka also notes that in the Canadian experience, it was military involvement without the benefit of public input that created the rule there. He wonders, with the benefit of experience, if the same thing is happening in the U.S. and points to countries where the military runs the airspace.There’s not generally much room for GA in those countries.