Going Direct: The GA Fleet Is Ready For The ADS-B Mandate! Well, Not Really, But Kind Of.

ADS-B Map
A simple map of where ADS-B will be and won’t be required on January 1st, 2020. Courtesy of FAA.

Forgive the CAPS lock here, but since it can finally be said that the FAA IS NOT GOING TO EXTEND THE ADS-B DEADLINE, the question is, how many of our planes are ready for the stroke of midnight that will usher in the New Year of 2020, the moment when ADS-B will be required for flying in most controlled airspace?

ADS-B, as you almost certainly know, is the next-gen form of radar that the FAA has been rolling out for the better part of 20 years. Instead of relying on big, expensive spinning dishes getting radar identifications of aircraft out there in the wild blue, an extremely inefficient way to do it in almost every regard, with ADS-B our planes themselves will tell air traffic control (and other planes, too) exactly where we are by transmitting our location data, and more. And we’ll know where other planes are, including track and altitude, by receiving that same data. (Displaying that data is, interestingly, not an FAA requirement.) So while ADS-B might be an expensive inconvenience in the eyes of some, no one is saying it doesn’t work. It works marvelously.

But how ready is the fleet of personally flown GA planes for this year’s Big Apple drop? If you look at one set of numbers, we’re in really good shape, though if you look more closely at those same data points, a more cautious form of optimism verging on panic might be the appropriate response. We think the picture is better than most think it is. Here’s why.

The FAA is keeping tabs on GA fixed-wing planes equipped with ADS-B (along with those equipped with non-compliant ADS-B, which sounds like “unequipped” to our untrained ears, but whatever). The agency says that more than 100,000 GA fixed-wing planes are now outfitted with ADS-B. Sounds good, but is it?

The truth is, we don’t know. And that’s because in its numbers the FAA doesn’t break down the distinction between business aircraft, which for the sake of argument we can identify as turbine equipped planes (fan jet, turbojet, turboprop). FlightAware, the flight tracking business, knows exactly how well that fleet is doing, right down to the model of aircraft. And the news here is good. A total of 88 percent of the business fleet is equipped with ADS-B, and it’s actually even better than that when you dig into the numbers. The Cessna Citation Latitude, a model that was certificated in 2014 and introduced into service in 2015 is 100 percent ADS-B compliant, not a surprise as it was manufactured to be ADS-B compliant. Another, older business jet fleet, the Gulfstream G3, is only 55 percent ADS-B equipped, while the slightly newer Gulfstream IV is near 90 percent.

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The equipage percentages that FlightAware published earlier this week highlight two factors that strongly influence equipage rates, the age (and, hence, the value) of the aircraft and the plane’s geographic reach. The Air Tractor AT-802, is only 42% ADS-B compliant fleet wide, a fact that surely reflects the areas the aircraft are operating, either in ADS-B mandated airspace or not.

Out of a total of 17,619 identified business aircraft, 88% are ready for January 1, 2020, when the mandate takes effect.

While FlightAware’s numbers leave little to the imagination, the FAA’s figures leave much to interpretation. This is because the agency’s latest report doesn’t distinguish among planes by either aircraft type or the engine(s) installed. So of the roughly 100,000 fixed-wing aircraft the FAA says are ADS-B compliant, around 20,000 of them, or 20% of the planes in question, are business aircraft, whose operators pay far more for an ADS-B installation into their far more expensive planes (on average) that are impacted disproportionately by a lack of ADS-B gear, as most turbine aircraft are used for transportation, fly at altitudes where ADS-B is required, and serve owners who can’t afford to miss the deadline.

None of those factors are true for most of the GA fleet, and the FAA doesn’t stipulate the fleet size anywhere in its data, leaving it up to interpretation how many light GA planes are ADS-B ready. But if one uses the ballpark figure of 200,000 GA planes operating in the United States, that makes the ADS-B compliance rate around 50%, counting business aircraft. Remove bizav from the equation and you’re left with a 40 percent compliance rate.

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Going one step further, if you remove from those numbers planes that are not active, and those that will not fly in ADS-B required airspace, the extrapolated ADS-B equipage rate is less dire. It could be as high as 70%, which considering where we were two years ago when only 42% of the business fleet was equipped, is a big win for GA and for GA avionics manufacturers.

 

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