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FAA's Digital Chart Charges Are Changing

Actual prices for electronic chart products have not been determined

By J. Mac McClellan, Director of Publications, EAA 747337


January 12, 2012 - Last December the FAA announced it was developing a new pricing model for its digital electronic charts. The announcement launched widespread speculation about what electronic charts will cost, with all sorts of figures being tossed around. The fact is that nobody knows at this point what various types of aeronautical charts in digital electronic form will cost, and the price will vary depending on the vendor supplying the actual chart for use on different types of displays.

Government involvement in aeronautical charting dates back to 1926 when the same branch of the federal government that had been creating nautical charts since 1803 was handed the job. The charting agency changed names and branches of the government several times over the years and eventually ended up being part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). But 11 years ago the job of creating aeronautical charts moved to the FAA, which created AeroNav Products, a division dedicated to navigation data development and charting.

AeroNav is essentially a wholly owned subsidiary of the FAA. AeroNav includes the people who assemble the data necessary to create a procedure, such as an instrument approach, and also includes the cartographers who create the finished charts. AeroNav is responsible for printing paper charts, and also creates and sells charts in digital electronic form.

The government has charged for aeronautical charts since 1926, and over the years the charges were designed to cover mainly the cost of paper, printing, postage, and other direct expenses. Between 1986 and 1988 the cost of charts almost doubled under a “reinvent” government effort designed to recover costs for specific services.

Now AeroNav is functioning as a so-called high-performing organization within the federal government and is authorized and directed by Congress to recover the cost of creating digital and paper charts, but not to make a profit. AeroNav calculates that it needs to bring in $5 million per year to cover the cost of database management and chart creation, and to sustain the capability to deliver accurate visual and IFR charts in a timely fashion.

The fundamental issue with digital chart cost recovery is that the federal government cannot, under law, copyright anything, including charts. That means that digital charts are being reproduced through all sorts of electronic outlets without any reimbursement to the government. Copyright is not an important issue for paper charts because the cost of paper, printing, and so on is unavoidable, and thus reprinting charts is not attractive. But the cost of reproducing an electronic file is tiny, so digital charts have been made available to the public without anyone necessarily paying to cover the cost as they would for a paper chart.

AeroNav has always charged for its digital charts. The charts are delivered on a CD that somebody buys from AeroNav. But once that CD and its data enter the electronic world, the charts can be duplicated in all manner of ways and in unlimited quantities without anyone paying for that privilege.

AeroNav does not and will not sell a digital chart directly to an end user. In other words, you can’t buy a chart directly from AeroNav and display it on your iPad, or multifunction display (MFD) in your airplane, or even on a website. AeroNav will only sell its charts to private companies who will then format the data for display on various devices. Those private companies will then pay AeroNav a subscriber fee based on the number of charts they sell.

Because only private companies will actually be delivering digital charts, the prices paid by pilots and airplane owners will vary widely. And AeroNav managers know that it is impossible to predict the innovative ways people will figure out to deliver and display electronic charts in the future. That’s why AeroNav is not in the business of selling directly to pilots because it wants its partnering vendors to be free to innovate and adapt as new electronic display and storage technologies emerge.

AeroNav will make the full range of charts and data available digitally to vendors, including “seamless” VFR sectional charts, IFR en route charts, terminal charts, airport facilities directories, and so on. The charts will not be bundled when they are sold to vendors so a pilot can subscribe to the types of charts he or she uses, and coverage areas will be divided so you will not need to buy the whole country if you don’t need it.

AeroNav is also developing vector-based charts in addition to the PDF file. With vector-based data the display device “draws” a new chart at every scale so when you zoom in or out the resolution quality remains the same. Sectionals and other charts will retain their multicolor design, and color is added to most IFR charts.

The immediate task ahead for AeroNav is to determine the market size for each electronic chart product and then work backward to establish a price. The agency needs to recover $5 million per year, but cannot make a profit so it needs an accurate forecast of the number of chart customers to set each product price. Companies that make avionics equipment and chart applications are supplying AeroNav with data on their customer base.

Paper charts of all types will continue to be printed, and AeroNav estimates it will be at least 15 years before the demand for paper charts ends. However, as paper chart sales decline, as expected, the cost of digital charts will increase because the expense of data base management and cartography will remain constant and must be recovered. EAA and other general aviation groups are monitoring and participating in the AeroNav pricing model development to ensure that pilots are treated fairly.

It’s early in the process, but it appears that an equitable distribution of the cost of creating digital charts will not be burdensomely expensive as long as each chart user is paying his or her fair share. The new AeroNav pricing model is designed to recover costs from all users at a level that represents the value of each chart, but no more. That is the goal EAA supports - fairness that does not have some pilots subsidizing the chart cost of others and making certain pilots can obtain digital versions of the charts they actually need.


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