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The 2014 GAA User Survey results, Part 1: MetFlight is a disaster

Typical comment: Too expensive

Typical comment: Too expensive*

The first GAA user survey of 2014 reveals strong evidence of the shocking state of weather forecasting services for recreational aviators in New Zealand.

It shows beyond doubt that the move to paid subscriptions for MetFlight has:

♦ dramatically reduced the number of people seeking MetFlight forecasts

♦ sent former MetFlight/IFIS users to less reliable sources

♦ probably contributed insignificant revenue towards offsetting MetService costs, and

♦ failed to support the mantra of “safety”

Typical comment: It encouraged you to pick up the NOTAMS at the same time

Typical comment: It encouraged you to pick up the NOTAMS at the same time

Just under 500 GAA supporters completed our first survey, which ran from December 2013 to February 2014 and covered Met services and the CAA’s medical policies.

When forecasts were free from the Airways IFIS website (and for a time, the MetFlight site), 79.86% of 437 responders (or 349 of them) were using the service.

But when we asked how many were now using the user-pays MetFlight service, we found that only 14.8% of the 472 question respondents were signed up. That’s about 70 pilots out of 472 checking the weather using MetFlight, before embarking on a flight. This is in line with anecdotal information that indicates MetFlight has little more than 400 paid subscriptions across the entire recreational GA population.

In simple terms:

♦ External funding was removed

♦ MetService decided to charge for MetFlight

♦ Users abandoned the MetFlight service in droves

Typical comment: It is wrong that GA pilots should have to pay for weather

Typical comment: It is wrong that GA pilots should have to pay for weather

Some of the non-subscribers said they now use a club subscription to access MetFlight. Others use Metvuw, or the US-based SkyVector website, which should give the CAA Director Graeme Harris and his Chief Met Officer Peter Lechner cause for grave concern.

A feature of some comments was that – because the user flew infrequently – the cost of MetFlight was far too high for their needs. It might cost “around 30c a day”, but for some that works out at $10 per forecast. One or two stated that they no longer flew in bad weather, and so had no need of any kind of forecast!

But the most frequent complaint was the old (and as-yet unresolved) chestnut: Why User Pays for aviators, when boaties and trampers get their weather forecasts free?

Conspiracy theorists may speculate that general aviators were just a captive bunch of guinea pigs used to test out the idea of charging boaties and trampers for weather forecasts, if the experiment worked.

It clearly has not.

So MetService, Maritime NZ and sleep-walking pollies will probably lay off seafarers and hikers (at least until the election is over) because two things are clear from this survey:

♦ If you charge for safety-related weather information, people may try to save a little money and then might take potentially lethal risks

♦ The financial return to MetService does not justify the subscription policy

Typical comment: I borrow someone else's logon!

Typical comment: I borrow someone else’s logon!

So much for the discredited idea of charging low-level, recreational pilots for a weather forecast. As one of the respondents says so succinctly: Charging for this information has tempted some pilots to operate without it, which is dangerous.

Airways “welcomed” our survey results, saying they appreciate feedback, “the good and the bad”. But despite our invitation, Airways did not offer any comment on more than 60 pages of survey comments, many of which show to all but the blind, dumb and deaf that subscriptions for weather forecasts do not work and the charging policy is counter-productive.

In a statement which flew directly in the face of the evidence put before it, MetService said:

MetService believes that recreational pilots take responsibility for their own safety very seriously, and understand the importance of weather information designed to their specialist requirements (as outlined in Civil Aviation regulations). We do not accept the inference that pilots would risk their safety just to avoid payment of a subscription costing as little as 30 cents a day.

MetService will continue to offer fit-for-purpose weather information that meets aviation regulations under the low-cost MetFlight GA subscription service. We encourage aviators to consider the various subscription options available, which have been designed to meet the needs of all GA pilots, whether flying regularly throughout the year, less frequently, or over short periods of time. This information is available on our website:

http://about.metservice.com/about-metservice/business-services/aviation/

This is empty PR-rhetoric, born of Einstein’s Definition of Insanity: Repeating the same thing over and over again, and expecting different results.

GAA asked MetService to confirm the number of current MetFlight subscriptions. On March 13, MetService stated that the number of subscribers was 429.

Graeme Harris says he shares our concerns

Graeme Harris says he shares our concerns

CAA Director Graeme Harris commented: “Many of the issues raised about the provision of meteorological information to recreational aviation are ones that the CAA has limited influence on so I will correspondingly make limited comment in that regard. I also understand that the parties directly involved are considering potential solutions so would not want to disturb that work. As you know, strictly speaking the CAA’s only involvement in the provision of meteorological information to domestic aviation is to ensure that any party that chooses to provide such information complies with the provisions of Civil Aviation Rule Part 174. From the broader safety promotion perspective, however, we have a very clear interest in ensuring that pilots do access and use appropriate meteorological information when flying. Thus, I’d certainly share the concern you have referred to about the possibility of pilots increasing safety risk by not meeting their responsibilities in this regard. As a matter of policy and practice, I will continue to promote the case for easy access to meteorological information for domestic aviation. I’d also prefer that the method of funding and/or its pricing did not constitute an unreasonable barrier to use.”

The pilot’s responsibility for ensuring safe flight, in respect to weather, does not include a requirement to access MetService forecasts or MetFlight in particular. The unreasonable barrier is the cost.

By…

♦ charging recreational aviators (but no other recreational interest group) without due regard to the consequences, and

♦ prohibiting the sharing of subscribed-for information – MetService terms, 5. Prohibited Use, clause 5.1: “The User must not resupply all or part of such information (whether for consideration or not) to any other person”

… MetService has breached the spirit and possibly the terms of CAA Rule Part 174, namely this clause:

174.9 Issue of certificate

An applicant is entitled to a meteorological service certificate if the Director is satisfied that

(3) the granting of the certificate is not contrary to the interests of aviation safety.

MetService’s terms would tend to suggest that those who are using the login/user name of an organisation in an unauthorised manner may be acting in contravention of the MetService Terms and Conditions. Our survey disclosed that just over 48% of respondents accessing MetFlight were using an organisational password/login.

And how could the cause of aviation safety be served if, on some lonely airfield and in questionable weather, a subscribing pilot obeyed the MetService terms and refused to share his or her MetFlight forecast with a non-subscribing aviator? It’s a complete nonsense.

So how should MetFlight be funded?

Typical comment: Should be free, like marine and mountain forecasts

Typical comment: Should be free, like marine and mountain forecasts

A clear 46.2% majority rejects the idea of pay-per-user-per-forecast (with around 26% of others in favour and the rest undecided), most citing their belief that weather forecasts should be free of charge, and a few others worrying about the admin difficulties in charging per forecast.

Instead, a massive 84.40% chose joint funding by the CAA, Airways and the Ministry of Transport as an alternative source of funding.

One of the handy aspects of the weather forecast within IFIS was its close companion, the NOTAM.

Typical comment: This would be way too logical to ever happen

Typical comment: This would be way too logical to ever happen

The survey gives more than a hint that having this jointly important information on the same site was more than convenient, and another strong hint that – because the forecast is no longer there – the habit of checking the NOTAMs at the same time as the weather has also been degraded.

The Airways IFIS website works well (particularly since its face-lift) and has the ability to be a “one-stop shop” for GA pilots. Flight plans can be filed electronically, NOTAMs checked and we once had the ability – as happens in other developed countries – to get en-route, destination, and alternate airfield weathers along with SIGMETs.

Typical comment: Barking mad!

Typical comment: Barking mad!

(A small aggravation to infrequent users of the Airways IFIS website is that they may be required to submit a new user name and password when logging on. Airways has confirmed that the current policy it applies to inactive IFIS user names is to deregister any that have not been used for at least nine months. Initially, the inactivity time used was six months but this was increased several years ago, following user feedback. Airways has also confirmed that this period could be extended to 12 months if it was considered desirable.)

GAA supporters long for the good old days. Almost 92 percent of them said they want an IFIS website that provides weather and NOTAMs in plain language.

And while we are on the subject of plain language, those few who still read MetFlight forecasts are unimpressed by the CAA’s bowing down to obey the ICAO’s rules and making the SIGMETs’ arcane coding even less easy to interpret.

Typical comment: I didn't know there was a translator

Typical comment: I didn’t know there was a translator

When we asked if users considered the removal of geographical references in SIGMET reports was a retrograde step, 88.5% said it was. This places them alongside Canadian aviators, who appreciate the enlightened attitude that Transport Canada took in providing two choices of forecast: one for ICAO-interested international aircrew and the other for Canadian GA operators like us.

Only 13 people out of 468 thought it was a good thing. This places them alongside the CAA’s Chief Met Officer Peter Lechner and the Manager of the Aeronautical Service Unit, Michael Haines, who clearly need all the support they can muster.

About 85 percent of respondents would like their weather forecasts (and their SIGMETs in particular) to be provided in plain language.

♦ Download your PDF copy of the full Met section results: Survey No 1 Part 1 Met

* Click on any graphic to enlarge it

♦ We will deal with the medical aspects in Part 2

♦ Sincere thanks to everyone who took part. Now you know the results, why not log in and leave a comment below?

Comments

  1. Bruce Burdekin says:

    Several thoughts:

    First, great work to instigate the survey and then correlate the results.

    Do we have any idea what proportion of registered GA and microlight pilots the 500-ish respondents represents?

    We must be careful to keep to reasonable language and facts as this progresses – resorting to name-calling and sarcasm will quickly bring the whole process into the ‘this can be ignored’ category.

    With the exception of upper air information, there is nothing special about ‘aviation weather’ so (apart from the requirement in the rules) there is little need for me as a pilot to consult a special aviation product – there are plenty of other (free) sources out there. What IS missing from non-aviation weather is NOTAM and sigmet data. NOTAMs, in particular, need to be immediately and freely available on a variety of platforms.

    This whole issue is closely related to the current discussion about the AIP information being available to electronic flight bags at reasonable rates.

    • We did not seek detailed information on GA versus microlight pilots, but as a rough guide, respondents to the Med section medical certificate question showed this breakdown: Class 1, 52.49%; Class 2, 31.67%; Class 3, 0.22%; RPL, 8.68%; and Microlight, 6.94%. Not too much should be drawn from this, however, because the Med survey was of limited interest to microlight pilots.

  2. As the (for-free) author/provider of pemet.co.nz, I can provide a bit more background on the MetFlight scene.

    People should realise that the marginal cost of MetFlight-GA (to MetService) is very close to ZERO. If you log in to (1) MetFlight-Commercial then (2) MetFlight-GA you will notice that (2) is a crippled (abbreviated) version of (1). Metflight-Commercial costs users a gazillion dollars per year and (for regulatory reasons) all commercial operators have to have a sub. One assumes then that MetFlight-Commercial adequately covers its costs. There would have been a few thousand dollars of one-time cost when the GA version was set up some 15 (?) years ago but the operation of the site is just an automatic pass-through of the data for the commercial version. Hosting a website costs some diddly sum (tens of dollars per month) and that’s it.

    So it would appear that MetService charges GA pilots $100/year for a facility that doesn’t cost it a cent to provide. This is good business, I suppose – but “cost recovery” does not enter the picture – MetService is charging because it can.

    Back in the days before I did pemet, the AIA asked MetService about plain language weather. The response was that the estimated cost would be about $200k. So then I did it for free as a project to fill in my time and help me learn PHP. I offered the result to MetService (for free again) and got a ranting put-down response that could be loosely translated as “real pilots understand the avmet gibberish” and “plain language is not ICAO standard”. I recall there were phrases like “we have no plans to…” and “we have no evidence of any demand for… “. I was a bit taken aback by the vehemence of the response.

    One notices periodic Vector exhortations about weather and the need to gather it from all available sources for safety reasons. MetFlight, newspapers, TV, MetService general weather – everywhere except pemet 🙂 Recently, the SIGMETs turned into ICAO-compliant mush, so I upgraded the translator to put them back into English.

    I cannot for the life of me follow why we can’t have weather, NOTAMs and AIP Supplement in the same place. Even if they are still in gibberish. Curiously, the weather is done in ICAO-compliant pidgin, NOTAMs are sort of a free-form mixture and the AIP supplement is done pretty much in English. Tidying this up would not be real hard.

  3. murgalanz says:

    All good stuff, keep it up! Nil Illegitimum Carborundum.

    Also… the practice of Airways NZ charging $2/min on an 0900 number is dissuading pilots from filing flight plans and SARWATCH times now. Yes, it is possible to re-file on a computer – if you have one handy, and Yes, it is possible to re-file on the FISCOM frequency – if you a) are high enough to reach one and b) remember in time before landing! Anyway, what is the point of cancelling a SARWATCH before any chance of danger is past, especially at an unattended airport? And 0900 from a cellphone is sometimes the only option left.

    • Bruce Burdekin says:

      Ian, CAA and MetService don’t want folk to use your site because it shows them up as incompetent – if you can do it for free, then their IT people earning the big bucks start to look fairly silly…

  4. Aerobatologist says:

    There was a mention of the MetFlight subscription figures in last year’s AvKiwi seminar, “Get The Mental Picture”. I’ve tried to find it in the slides but it’s not there, it was probably just verbal.

    From memory, the CAA rep. said there were 8000 active subscribers (where active is at least one access per 12 months) of the MetFlight GA service prior to charges. A few months after the charges came into being, the number was 600 paid subscribers.

    This figure was from quite a long time ago, and I’d expect it to gradually decrease as pilots share logins or just give up and rely on the consumer-MetService for Metvuw information. So, I think the figure above of 400 current subscribers is probably quite close.

    Still, that’s an awful lot of pilots relying on dodgy weather information.

  5. A thought to ponder.

    Imagine if Met had always been done in plain language and MetService/CAA decided that we should be ICAO-compliant and they introduced the current weatherbabble without taking away the plain language. Commercial users would be compelled to show they had read the babble, but recreational GA people wouldn’t, but the GA folk would be exhorted to get with the programme, read weather like “real flyers” and be ICAO-compliant.

    If you had a meeting of all the GA people who changed from plain text to gibberish because “it is the right thing to do”, how big a room would you need?

    IB

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