I started an unwitting journey to understand the machine of European airspace data with a simple objective: find the “European version of ForeFlight.” For Americans, it’s not that complicated. We use one tablet app for flying; the issue is which one. Pricing, data, and functionality aren’t all that different, and boil down to the last few things that tip a pilot toward one choice or another.
I had no clue what I was in for in Europe.
Like everyone else in the US, I was drinking the Kool-Aid that the European Union had turned Europe into one big borderless flight zone, so things should be easy like in the US, at least when it comes to something so simple as data. They were not. One app only included half of France. Another didn’t include much north of Austria. Another used open source maps. And yet another seemed like it would work, except a la carte pricing quickly got terribly expensive when multiple countries were added. Then there was the “official” versus “un-official” approach plates.
In Germany, some airports are extremely strict about pattern flying. When I mean strict, fines are €500 for the first violation of flying more than 300 feet off of the exact pattern trajectory. To be clear, this is not every airport in the country, it is the ones with noise abatement concerns. Nonetheless, I wasn’t in the mood for knowingly unofficial approach plates. Even more so, I wanted functionality where GPS navigation would overlay on top of the official approach plate and show a lovely little airplane icon flying a precise German pattern.
I eventually settled on Jeppesen’s Mobile FliteDeck VFR app. It costs $387.39 for a year (at today’s exchange rate), is EASA approved, and solves most of the concerns that I had, prepping me with a nice tool chest for what I hope is not an inevitable brush-up with overzealous regulators.
Multiple people in Germany suggested other options, solutions equivalent to electronically taping a bunch of maps together. By the time I flew to four countries, add-on prices would have had me up near the Jeppesen price.
Then, by chance, I ran into Markus Marth of Jeppesen at Egelsbach airport. After ranting about my fusillade of concerns, he educated me on a few things that go into the creation of a European app, and invited me to stop in the office in Neu-Isenburg to understand more of how it works.
I must say, it was quite a learning experience as to how little most of us know when it comes to what goes into the aviation data on our maps. Jeppesen is the supplier for many major airlines for global navigation data, information that is eventually fed into Flight Management System computers. When a corporate jet or airliner shoots an approach anywhere in the world, the ability for the flight computer to pull it off, without data errors or confusion, is the product of hundreds of employees maintaining a global database of continuously changing navigation data.
That master database is the data source for my particular VFR tablet application. For just VFR data affecting the United States, Jeppesen employs one employee to manage FAA data changes. They employ a stunning thirty (30!) employees to manage European data changes. Western and central Europe’s landmass could fit into the continental United States twice. Using that ratio, it would be like having to have a full-time employee to manage chart updates only for each state in the United States.
Each country in the European Union organizes its own data. Charts are in different formats, with different symbols and colors. The equivalent of the Airport Facility Directory is different for each country, as are the terminal procedures and approach charts. All of these changes have to be standardized into one app, from multiple sources, in unique formats. Some countries have privatized this information, for which it must be bought from a company. Others give it away. In the case of the United States, the FAA offers it for free, instead of charging a license fee for each use. There are no known plans or frameworks for European countries to unify aviation data, so as of today, the best option is a software provider and application to make charting look the same. That is an interesting reality, as it causes a bit of a headache glancing at the German sectional, then back to Mobile FliteDeck VFR. Even worse, each app I previewed in Europe has a different “standard” map and symbol presentation.
Jeppesen was kind enough to satisfy my insatiable thirst for esoteric information by showing me how their IFR and global data process works. At first, I thought it was of little relevance to GA, then I thought how the whole airspace system would implode if airline flight computers received erroneous data. Suddenly, a slew of Airbuses would be making wrong turns, and our little bubble of VFR freedom would get invaded with chaos. In many ways, the proper functioning of the entire airspace system makes our brand of personal aviation as free as it is.
In each 28-day chart cycle, Jeppesen finds 120 global discrepancies in aviation data provided from official sources. These discrepancies might be something like the AFD listing runway 31, and the approach plate listing it as 30, as an example. In effect, governments make those mistakes. This is somewhat to be expected, as there are 220 providers furnishing data in 40 languages, though I must admit it was unnerving to entertain the idea that governments screw up navigation data. Aside from standard update cycles, NOTAMs are checked twice per day, and FDC NOTAMs are checked and incorporated into chart updates (you know, that obscure NOTAM type checked only on BFRs and checkrides…).
I asked if governments furnish this information in some form of data format that can be imported. Nope. Most of it is simply a PDF. Therefore, the information on the PDF has to be vectored into a custom language, the vectors visualized using custom software, overlaid to GPS mapping (to make sure that runway coordinates are actually the runway and not off by a margin), and then finally committed to the master database.
Then there is the matter of crosschecking and quality control. Imagine if someone didn’t have their coffee that morning and keyed the wrong location coordinates for an approach fix for a major global airport, and a false update went out to airliners. The chaos would be quite ugly. For critical data, Jeppesen employs varying levels of double-entry and verification, all the way up to a second person having to blindly re-calculate changes and have them match precisely before it is accepted.
The whole process left me stunned as to how well the US system works when compared to Europe. Imagine if our sectional maps changed structure, colors, and symbols for each state in the United States. Further, imagine if there were apps that were only for varying sections of the country, with significant add-on prices for other regions. To make matters worse, imagine having to pay significantly higher prices than we’re used to in order to have the privilege of having all of this non-standardized data. Europe is certainly exotic and interesting, though it can really be confusing. The more time I spend here, the more I am coming to realize that there are some things that we do very, very well back home in America.