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If you think things have changed a lot in our aircraft panels over past decade- hold on to your EFIS – you haven’t seen anything yet. WAAS- ADS-B and NextGen: all represent new capabilities for aviation and- in turn- the need for new equipment in the panels we fly. The prospect of other- as-yet unknown requirements for communications or other equipment adds to the flux. And beyond the equipment and technology challenges lies FAA ...

Dave Higdon   |   1st April 2008
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Dave Higdon Dave Higdon

Dave Higdon writes about aviation from his base in Wichita Kansas. During three decades in...
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AEA to help its members stay ahead.

If you think things have changed a lot in our aircraft panels over past decade- hold on to your EFIS – you haven’t seen anything yet. WAAS- ADS-B and NextGen: all represent new capabilities for aviation and- in turn- the need for new equipment in the panels we fly. The prospect of other- as-yet unknown requirements for communications or other equipment adds to the flux.

And beyond the equipment and technology challenges lies FAA Reauthorization- frustratingly stalled by an intransigent Senator and muddied by an obstinate Administration- which also proposes deep cuts in funding for parts of the FAA’s mandate. These political machinations complicate technological and operational progress on all fronts.

Nonetheless- the use of private aircraft continues to expand- the needs of the users unaffected by the affectations of the political opposition – White House- airliners and Senators- notwithstanding. In parallel- those who serve to maintain and improve our aircraft continue to deal with the challenges of keeping up with change in order to do their best to meet the needs of the operators.

In turn- those who serve to help technicians and shop owners navigate these dynamic times to maintain their unending efforts to educate and train- support and defend their constituencies. In the world of those who install- upgrade and maintain the equipment in our panels- that support comes from the staff efforts of the Aircraft Electronics Association (AEA) in Independence- Missouri.

Headed by president Paula Derks- AEA works on several fronts: It represents its shop- supplier and technician members to the relevant federal officials- legislative and administration- alike. AEA also offers training and support to help members improve their business services. Arguably the most visible sign of AEA’s efforts comes in the form of its annual convention and trade show- an event which serves as the focal point for new product introduction and communications between technicians- shop owners and the industry’s vast network of suppliers.

When we last visited with Derks for a World Aircraft Sales Magazine ‘Ten Questions’ Interview in 2007- the White House had proposed to shift almost $2 billion in annual costs to general aviation through an airline industry supported scheme to create new User Fees and a new bureaucracy to invoice- collect and account for the funds collected. Through a series of stopgap bills- the FAA continues to operate; but the conflict between the airlines and the administration- on one hand- and the rest of aviation- on the other- remains unresolved.

Also pending: The outcome of a sweeping Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that the FAA issued last fall which would mandate ADS-B in virtually all aircraft by 2020. The FAA wants ADS-B to serve as the backbone for a vaguely defined Next-Generation Air Traffic Control System- known colloquially as NextGen.

These issues are simply backgrounds to the changes already underway in aviation- as more and less-costly digital-panel options continue to attract takers – meaning shops and technicians are continually challenged to stay up-to-date in their knowledge and capabilities in order to meet customer needs.

New Primary Flight Display options- increasing Multifunction Display choices- expanding choices in weather sensors- traffic- and ground-hazard avoidance gear- and the newest hot-to-go technology- GPS navigators with Wide-Area Augmentation System capabilities- don’t leave AEA members with much time to absorb and adapt to these advances. Should- as many expect- ADS-B become the new backbone for air traffic management- the demands on the shops- installers and technicians will expand yet again. It’s a little like trying to drink from river rapids without being washed away – the pressure never abates- but slip up and you’re far downstream- fighting to catch up.

Despite all that is happening- and with AEA’s 51st convention scheduled for April 23-26 in Washington- D.C.- Derks agreed to partake in another Ten Questions Interview for the readers of this publication.

WAS: Let’s jump right in at the deep end- and ask about AEA’s view of the ADS-B proposal published last fall by the FAA?

Derks: The AEA- in general- supports the requirement to adopt ADS-B. However- in its new proposal the FAA has failed to offer a plan that is cost-effective- safety enhancing- or a complete proposal. In addition- contrary to public law- the FAA is proposing a performance standard in this NPRM that is not available for the public to review.

The FAA claims this is but the first step toward a next-generation communications- navigation and surveillance (CNS) requirement. As such- this partial proposal does not include the total cost of the next-generation requirements; will cause the industry excessive financial burden; and will compromise the FAA’s claims of safety.

The FAA must develop a proposal utilizing an “evolutionary” process that uses existing avionics to the maximum extent possible- rather than this stepped “revolutionary” process of wholesale technology replacement of the entire CNS suite in general aviation aircraft.

WAS: This question reflects AEA’s own observation that “the 1960s vintage panel will be obsolete for certain flight operations by 2025”: With ADS-B and NextGen looming for the next step air traffic management- what other changes can we expect to face to keep our panels from becoming obsolete?

Derks: The FAA and its JPDO office have been briefing NextGen at various trade events. The reality is the FAA expects a completely different system of communication- navigation and surveillance systems by 2025. Now admittedly- it will be very limited in 2025- and limited to 'high traffic' airspace. But- nonetheless- it will be the beginning of the transition. Communication will be digital and primary navigation will be satellite-based (C129 GPS does not meet the requirements for 'primary navigation'). This is strictly a WAAS requirement- and surveillance will be ADS-B.

WAS: Clearly a lot of change is in the offing for a lot of aircraft- with plenty of latent utility if the owners want to retain full access to the National Airspace System in the coming years. Can operators help themselves by making equipment choices now that won’t be made obsolete by some of these future equipment needs?

Derks: This is our biggest complaint. Instead of following an ‘evolutionary’ process where the FAA looks at the available ‘common’ technology and evolves an ATC system based on what is already out in the industry- the FAA is making a ‘revolutionary’ change without regards to the equipment in current use- even the ‘new technology’ equipment. This concept is apparent with the ADS-B proposal.

WAS: Can you bring us up to speed on the Part 145 rewrite that had so many organizations – AEA among them – so disturbed a year ago?

Derks: The only thing we know about the 145 changes is that the public raised enough substantial questions and challenges to the FAA that it has taken much longer than it (the FAA) anticipated to resolve and respond to the public comments.

This is how the rulemaking process is supposed to work. So- while we are as frustrated as anyone with the delay- it is a success for the industry and the public that it has taken this long.

We do know that the FAA is building some Internet-based infrastructure to assist and minimize the impact of some of the ratings- as well as alleviate capability list burdens raised by the public in their comments.

WAS: One of the programs available to members is AEA’s Training Excellence Award- given to shops that meet a minimum standard of continuing training for their staff. Can you explain how this award can be useful for the potential client as well as the qualifying shop?

Derks: Participation in the AEA’s Avionics Training Excellence (ATE) Award program requires every technician in an AEA-member repair station to participate in at least one of the following forms of training during a 12- month period:

1. Attend an AEA regional meeting or the annual convention and get credit for attending the educational sessions and workshops;

2. Complete and pass the annual Avionics News technical training exam found each year in the January issue of the magazine;

3. Attend an approved manufacturer’s training course;

4. Watch one of the AEA’s technical training DVDs and pass the written exam at the end of the video.

So- as you can see- technicians at participating avionics shops truly benefit by choosing one simple method of training to qualify for the annual award. Not only do they receive a nicely framed ATE certificate- they have exposed themselves to continuing education that is so vital in our industry. In turn- their customers benefit by knowing that the shop they have chosen to perform their repairs or installations- takes advantage of new training opportunities on an annual basis.

WAS: In many ways- 2007 was a milestone year for general aviation with strong sales- bulky backlogs and record deliveries. However- last year also brought some disappointments- probably topping the list was the inability of Congress to act on the sense of the majority and enact a bill like H.R. 2881 reauthorizing the FAA without user fees. How does AEA respond to Sen. Jay Rockefeller’s recent claim that general aviation is at fault for failing to compromise on his minority view that a $25 IFR filing fee is needed to fund the agency and NextGen?

Derks: With all due respect- I disagree with Sen. Rockefeller’s scolding of the general aviation industry for not willingly accepting his proposal of a $25 IFR filing fee. Our message has not changed from day one during this battle: the current system of financing the FAA and the national airspace system is not broken. Projections for revenue going into the Airport and Airways Trust Fund will continue to finance the FAA- plus pay for NextGen.

WAS: In the year since we last talked- has the supply of qualified technicians improved and- if so- how?

Derks: Unfortunately- the answer is no. Our members are still reporting a shortage of qualified technicians. The AEA continues to partner with our academic members to offer scholarships for students seeking careers in the general aviation maintenance industry; mentor and job-shadowing programs; and promoting career fairs and youth programs to entice our youngsters to consider a career in our niche of the industry.

It is an uphill battle and for true success- it will take everyone in the industry to help solicit youth to consider a successful career in the aviation electronics industry.

WAS: In the past 12 months we’ve seen a considerable surge in integrated panel upgrades available to a growing list of business turbine aircraft. How do AEA member shops find and capture some of the considerable retrofit work these new systems will generate?

Derks: Luckily- many of our members are telling us that business is great right now with the retrofit market. They foresee that market to continue to grow. Of course- Marketing 101 tells us that we have to constantly spread our message to our potential customers about services and capabilities a shop can offer through word-of-mouth- advertising- open houses- educational forums at the shop’s facilities- etc.

Even though the future looks bright because of the emergence of integrated panels- I think everyone in our association knows you can’t sit back and just wait for those customers to flock through the door; the competition is tight and you have to have the proper training- tools and manufacturer relationships to benefit from this surge of new products.

WAS: Looking at the flip side of the general aviation coin- three years ago the FAA formalized a new segment of aircraft with the acceptance of consensus standards for Light Sport Aircraft and since then well over 2-000 new Special Light Sport Aircraft have been delivered in the US. Most of these machines were equipped with basic avionics – a comm- a VFR GPS and a Transponder – and many with added options such as autopilots and weather-data link gear.

Is this a segment on the radar screen of AEA members and is there any effort underway to capture some of the business those panels will eventually generate?

Derks: Most definitely! In fact- the AEA itself has recognized the potential of this market and we have conducted workshops at our regional meetings on this very subject- as well as articles in our monthly magazine. While at first- the shops may have scoffed at the idea of top-of-the-line panels in LSA’s- they are now realizing the owners of those new aircraft are just like any other aircraft owner: they want the latest and greatest avionics products in their cockpits- and are willing to pay for them. That’s good news for our members.

WAS: There’s been a lot of ink expended lately on the potential for an economic recession and as much about credit tightening because of the sub-prime mortgage market collapse. At the same time- the business of aviation seems to be at a financial- if not unit-count- crest. How would fulfillment of the recession forecasts likely impact AEA members – if at all?

Derks: I recently read a most interesting article by a financial analyst from Wall Street. The title of his article was- “Repeat after me: The economy is not that bad.” I couldn’t agree more with his assessment. Despite the small minority of Americans caught up in the sub-prime mortgage mess- and the downturn of the stock market- I firmly believe the media is over-reacting to this news. Right now- the general aviation industry is healthy; and statistics show emerging markets outside of the United States are growing at rates triple what the U.S. is experiencing.

So- there will be demand for general aviation products and services by those healthy economies as well. We are a cyclical industry and we have been fortunate to always recover. What we have in our favor are the positive numbers just released by the General Aviation Manufacturers Association that show the sale of turboprops and business jets at double-digit increases compared to the prior year. Those new airplanes soon will take to the sky and they will need fuel- services- and new products along the way.

Plus- new avionics products are being developed at rapid speed; in fact- 30 new avionics products are set to be introduced at our upcoming Convention and Trade Show in Washington- D.C. That’s always a positive sign for the aviation economy!

WAS: Paula - thanks for your time!

You can contact Paula and her staff at AEA’s headquarters based at: 4217 S. Hocker- Independence- MO 64056; Tel: +1 816 373 6565; Fax: +1 816 478 3100; Email: [email protected]; Website: www.aea.net

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