ADS-B Apocalypse


I think most aviation writers are bright-eyed, cheery kind of people just thrilled to spend their days writing breathless paeans to the wonder of flight. On a good day, I can sort of pump myself up to do that before I inevitably spin off into dark obsession about January 1, 2020.

That date, you will surely know, is the ADS-B witching hour, after which you’ll be banished to NextGen no-man’s land if your airplane lacks the little box. As of today, it’s 423 days away. I have a little reminder on my electronic calendar to alert the staff that we can then stop writing about this topic on that day. (It’s a Wednesday.)

Then, as I was researching a report on the latest round of portable ADS-B receivers, it occurred to me that this is a delusional fantasy. In phoning around to various avionics shops, I learned that the long-predicted installation logjam is not quite afoot yet, but it’s in sight. That leads to an obvious question: How many have equipped and how many to go?

The answer proves to be elusive. In June, MITRE estimated that piston-engine singles represent 79 percent of the U.S. aircraft fleet, but only 25 percent of them had installed ADS-B. That’s fairly dismal, but also misleading. AEA’s Ric Perri told me he thinks the number of piston aircraft that can actually justify the expense of ADS-B—and whose owners will—may be as few as 90,000, not the 140,000 on the registry. If that’s so, then as many as two-thirds may have already equipped and surely more than half. Maybe.

But that still leaves 30,000 to 40,000 airplanes to go and a dwindling number of days for them to have the installation done, if indeed they’re going to do it. Shops are telling me that the current backlog is typically between two and three months. Not bad. But what no one counted on or at least fully understood is that customers coming into the shops aren’t just having a quick ADS-B installation. Many are opting for full panel upgrades that take three weeks, not three days.

It’s unclear if that pattern will persist after the first of the year but also no reason to believe that it won’t. That could mean that installation delays could balloon early in 2019 and one shop owner told me he thinks that’s exactly what’s going to happen. “I have no doubt there will be a lot of people grounded,” Chuck Gallagher, of Cincinnati Avionics, told me.

Then something else occurred to me. I think there will be a substantial community of owners who will sail right past the 2020 deadline without equipping and either not care or just go with the flow to see what happens next. I think the number is likely to be in the many thousands, meaning that hapless palookas like me will be consigned to write about ADS-B … forever. I can already see the story topics: FAA twists pearls over non-equipped airplanes; owners without ADS-B complain of restrictions; owners without ADS-B live a life of carefree and anonymous flying. And so forth.

As a professional requirement, I have to periodically have my eyes de-glazed so I can track all of the ADS-B products. If yours are glazed over, I envy your solitude. But just for the record, by our last count, there are 46 ADS-B products, counting portables and mandate-compliant panel mounts. I’d never say too much competition is a bad thing, but I’m also sympathetic to owners wading through all this stuff to reach a buying decision. Or to skip it entirely.

If there’s a takeaway here, I guess it’s this: Whether you want ADS-B Out or not, but you fly in airspace where you’re really gonna need it, better make the decision by late spring or early summer of 2019. Such that this is even remotely predicable, my guess is that many shops will be backlogged right up to the deadline by then. (Adding another topic here: Owners howl about avionics shop backlogs.)

We keep hearing from would-be buyers awaiting approval of the uAvionix wingtip and tail light beacon ADS-B Out solutions. As we’ve reported, Garmin has sued uAvionix over patent infringement and it’s unclear how or even if this is impacting approval of the company’s ADS-B Out products. If I were waiting on these products coming to market, I wouldn’t wait too long.

Meanwhile, many thousands of owners have 423 days to contemplate the specter of never equipping or waiting until months after the deadline to do it. I confess to a certain morbid curiosity to see how this is gonna work out, even if it consigns me to write about this topic for the rest of my life, which is evidently going to happen anyway.