Where, Exactly, Are Apps Going From Here?


Around the virtual conference table in the editorial offices, no declarative statement induces more heartburn than this: We need to look at apps. To get the reflux rising in the throat, add: again. That’s because compared to evaluating aviation apps, Alice’s rabbit hole is a pleasant picnic on a warm day.

Why? Because almost anyone can write and market an app and sometimes I think everyone has. There are scores of these things and even if you distill them down to just the navigation and planning apps, you’re still left with at least a dozen and you’ll still miss a couple, as I did when I prepared a survey on apps a couple of months ago. (“You forgot Avare you &^%$#(* morons!”) Let’s pause here while I flog myself and check the spelling of mea maxima culpa.

Apps have become so important to aviation that a question occurred to me: Have they really benefited operations and improved safety or are they just another gimmicky distraction? My question, so my answer: Definite yes to the first part, but a definite danger of yes to the second part.

As developers struggle for growth and market share in a universe that’s not expanding much, the only way to gain ground appears to be to improve the product with more features, maybe better performance and improved operability or upscale it to the heavy iron, as ForeFlight is doing under the expert tutelage of mother Boeing. Lowering the price never seems to be part of the business plan, standard supply and demand rules being perversely inverted in anything to do aviation.

Users have noticed. Boy, have they noticed. Our survey—which was answered by more than 900 readers—revealed a clear distaste for what is commonly called feature bloat. Apps can do anything and there’s sometimes no restraint in having them do everything, including things you didn’t know needed doing. This mirrors a trend in high-end avionics. Consider the displays of a typical Garmin G1000. It’s festooned with more flashing digital values than the Big Board when the job numbers tank.

Thus, it’s only the déclassé and disadvantaged app that can’t optimize for wind, temperature-corrected fuel burn, CG location to five decimal points, IFR preferred routes adjusted for JetBlue’s afternoon push out of JFK—if they still have pushes—while crunching your taxes as you fly a 49-mile trip to the pancake breakfast. Coming soon: Use the app for a mobile order of the blueberry cakes flung into the backseat as you whiz by on the taxiway. Apps were born for contactless pancake breakfasts.

Don’t get the impression that pilots don’t love apps. They do. An astonishing 82 percent of ForeFlight users consider the app indispensable. But don’t get the impression pilots think they’re necessarily worth the money. “New features always come at an increased price. I feel like I joined a book club,” wrote one pilot, putting his thumb on the newly discovered golden goose of American business. We no longer just sell stuff, we provide “ongoing value” by charging monthly subscription fees that are just a few pennies short of causing the user to flee, but are many pennies north of a good business for app builders.

Not that I think this is morally wrong or a bad thing. It’s just that I sometimes mightily tire of the number of companies that nick me for basic fees: Amazon, Apple, Adobe and I think about a dozen more whose charges are buried somewhere in my VISA statement but, like everyone else, I forgot what they’re for and they know I don’t have time to find out.

It’s not clear to me how much more apps can be made to do that delivers usefulness equal to the effort of learning new features. That’s another complaint revealed in our survey. Constant churn of features and capabilities seem to irritate as many people as they delight; maybe more. Just as you were getting the hang of it, the developers throw the change up. Personally, although I’m not a Luddite, I have gotten along in life quite admirably by being morally opposed to all change.

Has the profusion of apps changed or improved the experience of aviation? Yes, but let’s not get carried away. Oh, how I would have killed a couple of decades ago when I was flying charters to just push a button to reverse the flightplan, get the briefing and file when the clients showed up to go home. This is dream capability. So is having datalinked weather and traffic through ADS-B In. Used correctly, these must certainly be safety enhancers. Used correctly, they must certainly integrate the pilot’s brain more intimately into the act of flying an airplane.


Weather-related accidents have trended downward for a decade and sharply downward since 2015. Could app-retrieved and processed weather be a factor? It’s possible. On the other hand, a correctly used app should allow planning that makes it absolutely, positively impossible to run out of gas, but we’re still doing that at least several dozen times a year.

It’s not clear to me where the industry will take these products from here. Tablet performance has plateaued and isn’t much of a factor in how these things work anyway. Readers tell us they already do more stuff than most have a need for and it’s getting to the point where, you know, actually flying is secondary to fetishistic devotion to a clever assemblage of silicon, glass and lithium. A recent poll we conducted here on AVweb revealed that only 11 percent of pilots don’t fly with a tablet at all. That doesn’t leave much headroom for growth.

But if you’re among that group or you’re tired of paying for an app, click over to eBay and buy yourself a used Samsung Galaxy or Tab for about $100. Load it with the Android-based Avare, and you’re into the game for pocket change. I’ve been using this setup in the Cub to amuse myself when the view out the open door gets boring. Well, it never does. But I’m trying to do my part to keep apace.   

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  1. I use a IPad for personal flying because the company I fly for allows us to. If I had to pay for what is in the IPad and approved by the FAA, I doubt it. When I first used FltPlan.com I thought what a time saver! It seems the more stuff that comes out, the more complicated they get, requiring training just to use, questioning whether they are really worth the money. A lot of times when flying for my company I just exercise CRM and let my younger FO’s get whatever info I need from some of these new fancy apps!

  2. Good point Paul. I have stuck with my original Foreflight subscription, which is no longer offered. Sure some of the newer features are nice, but to me not worth a permanent increase of $50 a year. Sometimes good is good enough.

  3. Back in the day, some fifty years ago, half the time I did not know where I was, or when I was gonna get there. Now, it’s more like all the time. But the screens are colorful and the knobs are many.

  4. As one of the readers who digitally flogged you for your omission of Free Open Source Software solutions in your questionnaire, that was an “ultimus culpa”, Paul. Thank you!

    I am constantly amazed by the number of pilots who agree to attach yet another wallet shopvac, just to fly from Point A to Point B. With Avare, not only is the software free, so are the VFR/IFR charts, TAC/FLYs, approach plates, Chart Supplements, taxi diagrams, etc. (Your taxes have already paid for them.) Those expensive software development teams (and management) which are kept busy churning out new bells-n-whistles at Garmin, ForeFlight, et al. are replaced by a small group of talented pilot/programmers who provide their time and effort for free. That tends to cut down the feature-creep to only those enhancements that provide the most benefit to the most users, as indicated by the very active online discussion forum. The forum also serves as the free collaborative customer support hotline.

    If you’re a Bose-wearing, iPad-toting aviator whose boss owns your aircraft, you probably aren’t interested in Avare. But for the rest of us, it’s the greatest technology since the noise-cancelling headset, and much cheaper.

    • Love “Bose wearing, Ipad toting aviator”!

      Such an accurate stereotype, and one that fuels my pride in the fact I still only use the Telex Echelon I bought used 15 years ago for $65. I made it all the way to the airlines with this rig. I make sure to flaunt this fact when my students show up with the A20s they bought as their first solo “gift”. Its like the guys at the gun club who have the most ornate, expensive 12 ga out there, then still cant shoot much better then the guy next to them with a cheap pump action. A lot of this aviation gear/crap is just a distraction.

      I will concede to foreflight as being pretty rad though, if only because I get a CFI discount and I keep my logbook on it. I primarily use it for that along with SA when teaching near complex airspace, plates, and weather updates. Its a nice way to file too, when the need arises. Beyond that, I dont know what else it does, and dont much care. Avare and Flt Plan go do the same thing for no cost, but I think foreflight is less clumsy and more intuitive, thus worth the small fee for discounted basic version.

  5. We’re our own worst enemies in this. The armchair techies amongst us constantly request various obscure upgrades via a wish list. It’s never taken into account that as you add obscure features you weaken the usefulness of the primary ones.

  6. “If it ain’t broke, fix it” seems to be stated in the job description of anyone who gets paid to write code. Ver 1.Y comes out, and you have to pay for the “subscription” to access the support needed to make Ver 1.Y do what Ver 1.X did before the change. A protection racket, as seen in the movies: Flashy-dressed short guy enters followed by two immense goons. Short guy says “Gee, dis is a nice candy store ya got here. Be a shame if somethin’ was to… Happen to it…”

  7. Since I have an Iphone Plus (which Avare doesn’t currently work with), I use WingX Pro which I think is a great app with a moving map and lots of other features. The VFR only version is a wonderful value, costing all of 99 cents a year and more than enough for the kind of flying I do, usually flights of less than 200 miles. I understand that WingX Pro also works with Android. Geezer that I am, I like to do most of my flying looking out the window so the WingX/Iphone is just a backup in case I get lost (which believe it or not happens once in a while).

    • WingX does (or at least did; I think it still does) have an Android version, which I tried. Unfortunately, it was so far behind the iPad version as to be less capable than many of the free Android aviation apps that it wasn’t worth using. However, the iPad version is just fine, and would probably have a larger market share if they designed the interface to look a bit fancier, like Garmin Pilot or ForeFlight.

  8. I’m 78, been flying since HS. I’m just glad I got to hang around long enough to see and use all or this unbelievable stuff. As I putt along in my no electric Aeronca Chief, feeding all that fantastic info into my iphone or ipad, from a battery powered $239 Stratux, onto a fantastic WingX app, furnished free by those super nice folks because I’m a CFI, I just shake my head in amazement. Do I need any of this? Well, no! But am I loving it? Well, yes!

  9. So it’s not just me? Thanks guys. I feel better about my frustration and now know what to call it. Feature Creep is everywhere, and it’s cousin, New Look, is there when it’s not. It’s good I’m not a software executive because I’d fire most my staff over this stuff.

      • I teach the E6B and paper charts as “they do not need batteries” and represent the arithmetic in aviation. However, I encourage the use of EFBs as they are practical and popular. “The way of the future”

  10. Apps and many airplanes for that matter, are toys. What is better than a toy which is constantly improving? We do love our toys. Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with having toys in fact, airplanes and apps can be useful toys. My airplane is a useful toy. It’s a small, LSA with a 2-stroke engine and I don’t go anywhere. I use it for enjoyment. I need it to satisfy some inner need to fly and change my perspective on the world. Same with the Avare app linked to my UAvionics ADSB. I enjoy using the app, seeing where I’m going and the other airplanes flying around me. Do I need to use the app? No. It’s just fun. I like playing with toys. There. I said it. I the real reason many of us have apps and the airplanes to go with them 🙂

  11. It blows my mind how many people pay hundreds a year for a subscription to Foreflight or Garmin Pilot just for 35 mile, VFR, breakfast flying.

  12. With respect to aviation apps, Paul hits the bullseye.
    Delivering this message to app developers could reduce frustration … if they would listen.
    New features are added which they believe would be enhancements, as opposed to what customers want or need. Developers get paid to build new stuff; users are typically not the priority. It appears irrelevant to the developers when new features create confusion, add unnecessary complexity or that updated, new user interface can require extensive effort re-learning how to use the technology. ‘Intuitive’ vanishes.
    When new technology is the driver and customer needs/wants are secondary, indeed the tail is wagging the dog.
    And in a rush to release each round of new bells and whistles, better known as bloat, it’s frustrating when existing functionality is broken (or removed) in the process. How about testing/Quality Assurance prior to release.

  13. Good editorial Paul. One other irritation that was not mentioned is that, as the developers slather on the new features, the need for a more powerful tablet becomes necessary. It is the same old contest between hardware and software vendors – more features require more processing power which allows more features. Case in point: WingX recently announced that its new and improved version of the program required upgrading to iOS Version 13 million, or something like that. But my ancient iPad 2 could not be upgraded beyond iOS V 11 million. So, now I have to buy a new (read expensive) iPad Pro or find another flight app that works on stone age equipment. The programmers also know that, once you have taken the time and trouble to learn how to use their program, you are more likely to stick with them rather than switch and learn something different.

    With regard to the question of whether the apps increase safety, that is a double-edged sword. During a flight review some time ago, my CFI criticized me for spending too much time fiddling with the iPad instead of looking at the real instruments and looking out the window. Point taken.

    • Good point about the deadly embrace between commercial hardware and software vendors. This is not the case with non-commercial software, however. At least, not directly. With free open-source software, the feechur-creep is driven, and limited, by the users. There are Avare users who want the latest and greatest bell/whistle offered by the commercial products. If it’s an easy-to-implement enhancement that doesn’t impact the wet-ware commitment of users who are perfectly happy with their six year old Costco closeout tablet, it will likely be implemented by an unpaid professional on his own time. It’s a naturally conservative (read: cheap) user base.
      The real problem arises when the software vendor updates their OS in a non-backwards-compatible way, usually in response to the hardware vendor doing the same thing. When that happens, the open-source developers have no choice but to say, “If you are using a device that is running [ancient Android version] or later, you can run the latest version of Avare. Otherwise, you may download and run any version of Avare up to [x.y.z]. So far, that has happened only once.

  14. My Garmin 295 just gave up…screen now blank. It fulfilled all my GPS requirements. I feel a bit naked now. I have a Garmin 250XL in the panel. It has never been intuitive or user friendly. But it does tell me where I am and the direction I am going. If I wanted it’s benefits, I have to do it Garmin’s way…which to me, has never been user friendly. But we developed an amicable relationship where I did what I minimally needed to do to get what I minimally needed out of those boxes of buttons and screens.

    After an eight year layoff from flying, I got back into the game, including aircraft ownership a couple of years ago. Prior to my layoff, a handheld GPS was all I knew about in addition to standard VOR navigation. Both served me well. Eight years later, I am in the middle of finding out about Foreflight, Garmin Pilot, WingX, iFly, Avare, pilot apps, etc…and ADS-B. Talk about a technological learning curve. Add to this new technology, I had to learn the older technology that was installed in my airplane, including EI fuel totalizator, 6 cylinder engine analyzer, the 250XL, and the S-TEC 30 with altitude hold. The KX 170B is the only familiar friend.

    For me, it has been a technological, uphill battle to find someone capable and comfortable in showing me the use of the old, plus competent enough with the new without being stuck with buying what my instructor knew because that is all he knew and cared about. At the pre-Covid-19 airshows, I sought out all of the vendors with their new offerings. Naturally, those manning the respective booths toggled through each one smilingly demonstrating the user friendliness…that is only available to that particular salesperson who lives, eats, and breaths only that app or machine. As soon a I was out of sight of the salesperson and the vendor’s booth, I was back into unfriendly user territory. And this scenario repeated itself for an entire year. In the meantime, I looked out the window with a back up glance to the VOR when flying.

    No doubt the handhelp GPS revolutionized aircraft situational awareness navigation wise. I believe it came at a cost of situational awareness as far as flying the airplane is concerned. As the buttons, touch screens, and toggles increased, I can’t quantify the percentage of loss, but the loss of flying the airplane awareness, seems to have eroded perceptively. Slowly we got acclimated to the two requirements and there seem to be a period of time where there was an amicable relationship with the two. Until the tablet and pilot apps came out.

    I believe generally, we are today where we were in the late 90’s to early 2000’s where the flying skills eroded while the learning curve increased with all the new handheld GPS/glass panel usage. We have an erosion of flying skills while we learn how to integrate ADS-B supplied information through increasingly complex pilot apps via tablet and/or cell phone use. Sort of like a constant flying texting situation. In the airplane but not really fully in the airplane. We are being somewhat distracted leading to distracted flying similar to distracted driving. The danger is getting acclimated and comfortable flying/driving distracted but thinking one is fully engaged.

    Now, I am back feeling frustrated. I am flying enough to feel comfortable flying the airplane, but still lacking in using all what I had available already installed on the airplane combined with my decision to go with a dedicated tablet with an iFly740, adding a Stratux for ADS-B In and the uAvionix SkyBeacon for ADS-B Out. Like others have said before me, I am thankful for what I know is available, but somewhat still inaccessible presently because I am not flying 100-300 hours a year pushing buttons everyday. I may push buttons once a week, while maintaining some semblance of flying proficiency. I have noticed when I make a concerted effort to learn how to push buttons, I spend an inordinate amount of time heads down. I only realize that when I come up for air after I figured out what to push next when.

    I don’t think I am alone. With the average age of a GA airplane over 40-50 years old, the larger percentage of airplanes are most likely equipped like mine. Somewhat new but basically old. However, all useful and functional. Just like me, old, somewhat new in thinking, functional but definitely not young, hopefully usable. Simplifying these pilot apps and tablet usage would be a game-changer for me. I am not unhappy with my choices. But definitely have available far more than I can presently understand while I get more proficient.

    I think the gadget makers assume that once you master the present, you can’t wait for more. For me, once I master the present, I want to use that without feeling as if there is something wrong with me being presently satisfied. Plus, being satisfied enough to stay satisfied at this level for several years of future use. I don’t need more. I want less with consistent reliability that I can count on from year to year.

    It seems to me there is room for the techie mindset, the commercial pilot use that brings usage and proficiency up feeling comfortable with multiple layers of data, and those like me flying 25-75 hours a year in older airplanes with a hodge-podge panel of old, older, and less old equipment with a smattering of new. I believe the avionics manufacturer has been missing an opportunity to expand their business to an already very finite number of flying customers. Simple could be the “new” new. If I want more, I can get more within my existing equipment. If satisfied, how about letting me be satisfied at that level. I would be very loyal for that kind of true user friendliness.

    • One of the advantages tablets have over handhelds is that many of them can be linked to your flight simulator of choice (if you have a home PC new enough to run a decent flight sim), so you can practice using the tablet in “real world” situations without being in the real world. Some apps even have this capability built in to them (Garmin Pilot is one such example, and I know others will do this too).

      For those without a flight sim at home, there are plenty of youtube videos out there that show how to use the app in practical situations. And this is a big advantage that tablets (and their handheld predecessors before them) have over panel-mounted avionics, is that you can take it with you and practice from home. So you don’t need to be flying a lot of hours to be able to become somewhat proficient with their use, as long as you do practice from home.

      But as mentioned, there definitely is a downside to fancy avionics in that they capture our attention, sometimes at the expense of flying the airplane and looking out the window. And even when we are paying enough attention to aviating, there is still the “rust accumulation” of forgetting how to do certain things manually. To counter that, I’ll occasionally turn everything off and try doing some things the old way (with a safety pilot as necessary to ensure we don’t run into any traffic or airspace). Flying a VOR/ILS/LOC approach with raw data only is a great exercise in remembering how things were, along with the obvious use of being proficient enough at it to use in case of an emergency.

      As I remind my clients, EFBs and moving map displays and autopilots are all just tools that are available to us, and it’s up to each of us to determine how best to use them. We can use them to extend the capabilities of the aircraft (at the same previous level of safety), or keep the existing capabilities and use the tools to enhance the safety of our flight. And it need not be one extreme or the other: you can sometimes do both. But you need to know your own capabilities should one or more of those tools fail to truly know what you’re doing when they are functioning, and what could happen should they fail.

  15. Like most of today’s avionics and apps, 80% of the functions I don’t need at all or there are simpler alternatives. This is what happens when you let processing capability, gobs of memory, and software engineers collide. Just because you can code it, doesn’t mean you should.

    I need a chart, POH/AFM, source of current information, and a navigation process (something between pilotage and GPS depending on the mission), and a brain to manage risks. The rest is just crap and a waste of money.

  16. OK, let’s own up to the fact that we are a tool-using species. Let’s also admit that we have always used the best tools we could justify. Back when I was young and building furniture, I made mortises with a chisel and a mallet. Then I discovered I could buy a mortise bit for the drill press, and it would repeatably drill a perfectly true and square hole with no effort. It was a superior tool for accomplishing a specific task.

    I treat Avare on my yoke-mounted tablet the same way: it replaces the finger-on-the-chart with a far more accurate airplane icon. It supplements my less-than-eagle eyes with ADS-B targets. It instantly answers questions that my brain can calculate, or remember from my preflight briefing, but far more accurately and confidently. It shows weather, winds-aloft, and AWOS with the press of a finger. It _will_ calculate my fuel burn to the pint, but I don’t use it because there’s no prize for landing with the gauges on E. And, if necessary, it’s far easier to shoot an instrument approach using the same technology I use to find BQ1. No more sword-fights and arithmetic gymnastics when the stress knob is already at 11.

    But I did not get roped into buying a set of mortise bits that would also drill triangular and pentagonal holes, and need to be sent back to the vendor for sharpening.

  17. I’ve had Avare on a Tab A for quite a while now. I just need to get back to actually flying!
    Still, as a former software developer, I’d rather see refinement and reliability rather than feature bloat with an every changing interface (talkin’ to you, Microsoft, Apple, and virtually everyone else!)