What the F*&@ is ADS-B and Why Is It Ruining Trips to the Bahamas?

Government Regulation, Technology

It’s a new year, and that means it’s time for new regulations to go into effect. One of the big aviation-related regulations involves the required use of Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (only slightly less-awkwardly referred to as ADS-B) in the US. This may sound like some technical program that doesn’t matter to the layperson, but it has had big implications. If you’ve heard about Bahamasair having planes banned from US airspace, this is why.

What is ADS-B?

Remember how Gogo inflight internet used to exclusively use those ground-based towers to provide service but then satellite options became available? ADS-B is the satellite upgrade… but for navigation, not internet.

For ages, the air traffic control system has used ground-based radar to track airplanes. That meant coverage was limited to where ground stations existed, and it wasn’t great at low altitudes, especially in mountainous areas where terrain blocked signals. As part of the long-touted NextGen program to bring air traffic control into the 20th century (and I do mean 20th), air traffic control would rely on satellite-based technology. ADS-B is what was settled on, and it became mandatory for use in most cases on January 1 of this year.

Who Needs ADS-B?

Anyone flying in this airspace requires ADS-B onboard:

Original image via FAA

In other words, it’s pretty much everyone except for small airplanes flying out of small airports that avoid all the restricted airspace around.

I should note a couple of caveats here. What is required is just the use of ADS-B Out which means that the airplanes broadcast to air traffic control. ADS-B In brings data into the aircraft from the outside, but that isn’t required.

Also, while ADS-B Out has to be installed, if it’s broken, it is still allowed to fly in the US until it gets fixed (for the most part). Here’s how American’s ops team describes it. Note that an ANSP is the “air navigation service provider” – basically, check with the countries to which you’re flying to see what their rules are.

If the ADS-B equipment is INOP, FAA does not require ATC approval to operate in domestic airspace For international operations with ADS-B INOP, the flight operator must determine the ANSP requirements

Why is ADS-B Good?

While every technology has its issues, the mandatory adoption of ADS-B is a good development. It will give more accurate positions over a broader area. This is a stepping stone that will allow for better navigation in the future as we try to move away from defined airways to more direct routes. Having accurate, satellite-based navigation is a cornerstone of that plan, so this is a big deal.

For those airplanes with ADS-B In, that further enables better information to be displayed in the cockpit. That provides a big boost to safety efforts. The only people who really object here are the private/corporate aircraft owners who find the technology too expensive. They think it’s an unfair burden, but that ship has sailed. This has been known for years, and it’s finally going into effect.

What’s the Problem?

Alright, so this is good, then why are we even talking about this? Well, naturally, there are issues. The rules say that you have to have ADS-B Out installed to fly in controlled US airspace. New commercial aircraft are all delivered with the technology, but for older airplanes, it can be an expensive upgrade.

Case-in-point: Many people figured American would delay retiring its MD-80s in light of the 737 MAX being grounded. After all, didn’t American need extra capacity? Well, there were issues around maintenance checks that were coming due, but one big hurdle was that this fleet did not have ADS-B installed. That’s the same reason Southwest couldn’t really ponder bringing its 737-300s out of retirement to fill the MAX capacity gap.

The kits reportedly cost about $200,000 per airplane, but then there’s the work involved to actually install them. I’m told on the MD-80s, it would require extensive modifications to wiring and avionics to make this happen. It’s hard to justify that for what would really just be a temporary capacity fix while the MAX sits on the ground.

It’s one thing to retire airplanes as planned, but it’s a whole different thing to get caught with your pants down. That’s what happened to Bahamasair. The airline has some turboprops alongside one 737-700 and three 737-500s. Those 737-500s do not have ADS-B installed, so they are currently banned from US airspace. Oopsie daisy.

If you want to know more, here’s a whole list of FAQs straight from the Federal Aviation Administration. In summary, ADS-B good… even if the timing with the MAX grounding is unfortunate. If others can’t keep up with the requirements, that’s on them.

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19 comments on “What the F*&@ is ADS-B and Why Is It Ruining Trips to the Bahamas?

  1. An interesting piece, but that said… getting caught with your pants down in the Bahamas is not a frightening prospect as say having it happen in international Falls.

    1. No Delta experimented with moding its MD-88/90’s with ADS-B and actually did a few before they decided it was not worth and have since grounded everyone one of them that doesn’t have it.

  2. ADS-B is about surveillance…not navigation. As a general aviation pilot, I see it as the FAA being able to reduce their surveillance costs by passing them on to aircraft owners.

    You stated: This is a stepping stone that will allow for better navigation in the future as we try to move away from defined airways to more direct routes. Having accurate, satellite-based navigation is a cornerstone of that plan, so this is a big deal. ”

    We have had excellent navigation for decades with GPS. That argument was used to justify WAAS and keeps being reused for new systems.

    Ron Lee

    1. How would you handle collision avoidance in GA with only GPS and without ADS-B. I get that in VFR conditions we’ve been doing this for years visually but curious if you see no benefit to having ADS-B when it comes to traffic.

      1. I flew using Flight Following so when ATC had time they provided traffic advisories. ADS-B Out only helps with collision avoidance if you have ADS-B In…which is not mandated.

        Obviously if all aircraft have ADS-B Out it should help but most GA collisions probably happen around airports. What about people who don’t equip with ADS-B Out. You still have to watch for them as you should anyway.

        Airlines are under ATC control and have protected airspace around airports.

        In my opinion, while this may be good I see it as the FAA putting the cost of surveillance on the users.


    2. Let’s be honest here… there’s a cost, and somebody has to pay it. The question is who and how, but the bottom line is that cost is going to get paid. And that comes down to politics, no ifs, ands or butts.

      Make no mistake, you can still operate in Class E airspace below 10,000 feet without ADS-B, and if you’re VFR, you can navigate however you want to your heart’s content. That still gives a lot of people the ability to operate a lot of flights the way they used to.

      But ATC needs better surveillance to approve more direct IFR routings. There’s a lot of new technology coming down the pipe where old radar just isn’t going to cut it.

  3. Question to pilots: is there a risk that this system could be hacked while a plane is in the air?

    1. No. It’s possible someone could send false information from the outside (e.g. make it look like you’re in danger of a collision), but the system itself is not connected to any kind of wide-area-network, unlike the systems in cars.

  4. The rules for using ADS-B were announced about 10 years ago, more than enough time for anyone that even wanted to consider flying a commercial airliner to equip it or not use it.

    Bahamasair does have aircraft that have ADS-B so they have already said they will just restrict the aircraft they fly to the US.

    Southwest had to get rid of its 737 classic fleet because the FAA would not allow the classic to share a common type rating with the MAX which is why Southwest cannot fly its classics. Given the MAX grounding, Southwest would gladly pull those classics from the desert for a couple hundred thousand dollars if it was just a matter of ADS-B.

  5. I guess I understand the reasoning behind the requirement for airliners, and it’s one thing to require ADS-B for operators of business jets and multimillion dollar planes, but I wish the feds would have cut private pilots a break.

    There are a lot of guys out there (and I hope to eventually be one of them), however who just fly for fun, and who occasionally want to fly through/to more restricted airspace. For those guys, the cost of adding ADS-B to their old Cessna, ultralight, homebuilt, etc (easily mid 4-figures, between parts and labor) could eat up the equivalent of an entire year’s flying budget, or more. That leaves them with some tough choices, and I can understand why many private pilots have such strong feelings about the topic.

    1. Maintaining parallel systems is a real chore. Part of the reason for a full transition to ADS-B is to get rid of the old ground-based radar system and the costs that go with it.

      NextGen has been such a slow roll-out for exactly this reason. It’s actually quite difficult to build enhancements for new technologies while retaining the ability for “legacy” aircraft to operate. Somebody has to bite the bullet.

    2. @kilroy
      With all respect, the necessity of ADS-B is not the value of the aircraft but the airspace in which it operates. It is precisely because you want to enter airspace that is used by “advanced users” that private users are required to meet the same requirements.

      Aviation has never been a low budget hobby and this requirement is no different from any of the others.

      To use a loose analogy, every motor vehicle that uses the interstate highway system has to meet the same vehicle standards; if you operate a vehicle on private land, those requirements do not apply.
      Perhaps more relevant are radio signals. Certain types can be contained completely on your own property but the vast majority use portions of the radiomagnetic spectrum that are designated for public use; like it or not, but you cannot transmit into that part of the spectrum without following federal requirements and restrictions.

      and, again, there were years of comment periods and notification before the requirements went into effect.

      The ship has sailed.

      Welcome to “progress”

      Bahamsair will have to get its aircraft ADS-B compliant or will not use them in the U.S. No other airline seems to have thought they could ignore the requirement so far as we have heard.

  6. Why isn’t the title of this article “What is ADS-B and Why Is It Ruining Trips to the Bahamas?” Or if you are trying to draw attention to the article I’d suggest “What the Fuck is ADS-B and Why Is It Ruining Trips to the Bahamas?” instead.

  7. Will this eventually lead to higher arrival rates in congested and weather-impacted areas like SFO and NYC?

    1. Mark – In theory it could lead to that. I’m sure there’s more than just ADS-B required to make that happen, but it’s a step.

  8. Wow. That is one big black eye for Bahamasair. The overwhelming bulk of the jet fleet, the purpose of which is overwhelmingly for flights between the US and the Bahamas, is out of commission due to a failure to timely comply with this FAA reg. That is huge. Will heads at UP roll for this or will it somehow be swept under the rug?

  9. Just to add an extra point, the $200K cost is for big airliners. There are options for small piston planes starting at a couple of thousand dollars, so it’s really not a big cost for us–any airspace that now requires ADS-B already required mode-C, so the old rag-and-tube Piper Cubs without electrical systems, flying out of country grass strips, won’t see any change at all.

    I’m Canadian, but I fly in the US often enough (busy airspace like Boston and NYC) that I decided to bite the bullet in 2017 and upgrade my Piper PA-28. I went for the gold-plated option at US $5,000 (+ installation) — that’s about the most-expensive it gets for us, but I really liked the capabilities of the Garmin GTX 345. It’s really not an expensive upgrade at our end of the spectrum, unlike for the airlines.

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