Editor's Log

October 2019 Issue

Brave New World

Toward the back of the magazine you’re holding in your hand, in our Quick Turns department, there’s a news item about the FAA formally transitioning to the ICAO-standard/international flight plan form for all domestic non-military operations. If you’ve been paying attention over the last few years, as we have, you’ll be happy to know a process that has seen several earlier deadlines come and go seems to have finally staggered across the finish line. As of August 27, the international flight plan form is the law of the land, so to speak.

In our October 2016 issue, we wrote, “Beginning in early 2017, [the ICAO form] will be necessary for filing domestic flight plans, too, both IFR and VFR, as well as DVFR and for the Special Flight Rules Area (SFRA) surrounding Washington, D.C. The switchover was to occur earlier this year, then it was to go into effect on October 1.”

We also made three predictions at the time: “First, those pilots still using a telephone to file flight plans will be stymied the first time a briefer asks for their airplane’s ICAO code. Second, EFB app designers will incorporate all this into their latest updates, if they haven’t already, so the additional information will only need to be entered once, into an airplane’s profile. Third, after a couple of months, the only pilots who still will be complaining don’t file flight plans, anyway.”

We stand by those predictions, noting the second one already has come to pass. As for the first and third predictions, we haven’t used a telephone to file a flight plan lately—and it seems the system has been developed so as to discourage filing over the phone—but we’re making a note to ourselves to try it soon and see what happens. As for the third one, check back with us in a couple of months.


Which, not coincidentally, will have us approaching the January 1, 2020, deadline for mandatory ADS-B use in designated U.S. airspace, i.e., basically where a Mode C transponder is required now. The latest news about the mandate involves privacy and how operators may legally anonymize the data sent by their ADS-B Out installation. The situation is complicated by one of the two flavors of ADS-B—the 978 MHz Universal Access Transmitter (UAT) standard intended for use below 18,000 feet in the U.S.—which incorporates anonymity into its standard. The other ADS-B standard, 1090ES, has no anonymizing feature like that available with 978 UAT.

The anonymity many groups are seeking is at the aircraft level. For years, operators have been able to block their registration from appearing in the FAA’s Aircraft Situation Display to Industry (ASDI) data stream, preventing the public from tracking the aircraft. Both the 978 UAT and 1090ES standards transmit registration in a non-encrypted 24-bit ICAO code specifically assigned to each aircraft.

The ADS-B data stream from equipped aircraft may be received with relatively inexpensive equipment and decoded on the fly. That’s one reason online flight tracking services have much richer data on the aircraft they monitor than before, when they depended on the ASDI data stream alone. It’s apparently relatively easy to determine which aircraft is overhead by decoding the data. Note that, even when an aircraft is squawking the VFR 1200 code, its registration is still part of the data transmitted.

Unless, that is, the anonymous mode available in the 978 UAT ADS-B Out standard is used. Presently, 978 UAT’s anonymous mode is only available to aircraft operating VFR outside rule airspace and not on a VFR flight plan. The AOPA petitioned the FAA to add aircraft on a VFR flight plan to 978 UAT’s anonymous mode.

As a result and according to AOPA, the FAA soon will publish guidance “clarifying UAT anonymous mode operations,” expected to be available via the January 30, 2020, iteration of the agency’s Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM). That guidance supposedly will include procedures for anonymizing aircraft equipped with 978 UAT technology, whether they file and fly a VFR flight plan or not. According to AOPA, the FAA also is considering revisions to FAR 91 rules regarding ADS-B “to eliminate any confusion regarding whether anonymous mode can be used while on a VFR flight plan.”

That’s fine for 978 UAT-equipped aircraft; what about those carrying equipment complying with the 1090ES standard? According to the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA), it has been working with the FAA to come up with a workable solution for these aircraft. So far, the solution appears to be “based on providing operators an alternate 24-bit ICAO (Mode S transponder) code,” NBAA said.

“Under this solution, operators would retain their permanent transponder code tied to an aircraft’s N-number, but would also be able to use a secondary, non-published code, assigned and managed by the FAA, which would not link to the specific aircraft tail number. It is expected that operators could request a new secondary code at least once every 30 days.” Also according to NBAA, “While private ADS-B receivers could still detect an aircraft flying overhead, they would not see any information allowing them to match that aircraft to the owner listed in the FAA Registry.”

— Jeb Burnside

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