Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Captain Snarky

Don't Use for Navigation!

The mainstream aviation press is saying good things about Jeppesen Mobile FD, but I'm not sure where to start. As a long-time Jeppesen customer, I've found myself saying things like "Sure Jeppesen products are more expensive and offer fewer features than other iPad EFB solutions, but this is just the first release." Or "Jeppesen has always offered a premium product and heck, some major airlines are planning to use their software on the iPad - That's pretty good." Or "Someday Jeppesen will provide MacOS-based installers, I'm sure of it." Then I remember that one of the goals of blogging is to provide readers with the unvarnished truth. After many hours of using Jeppesen Mobile FD in-flight, here's what I see as the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Bang for the Buck

Let's get this out front, in case you haven't heard: Jeppesen Mobile FD subscriptions are overpriced. Not just a little, waaay overpriced. Currently there is only support for geo-referenced en route charts in Jepp Mobile FD and a subscription covering just California costs about $125 a year. For $150 a year, I get ForeFlight with geo-referenced en route and approach charts for all the areas supported by Aeronav - That's the entire US, Alaska, Puerto Rico, Hawaii and the South Pacific. Add in ForeFlight's weather briefing and flight planning features and it's pretty easy to justify the annual cost.

A fairer comparison to Jeppesen Mobile FD is SkyCharts Pro, which offers only minimal weather features. SkyCharts Pro costs $20 a year for the same US chart coverage as ForeFlight. Compare that to many hundreds of dollars a year for similar Jepp coverage and, well that's just embarrassing.

Jeppesen does provide chart support for many foreign countries, but for US fliers it's hard to justify the cost.

The Good

Jeppesen has nice chart products that are clean and easy to read. Jepp charts provide added value with touches like a wider range of approach speeds and descent or climb rates in feet per minute. Jepp also describes the effects of inoperative equipment right in the minima section, which is very user-friendly.

Don't Use for Navigation!

Jeppesen adds some value, but since Aeronav adopted the briefing strip format a while back, there's not a lot of difference between the two product lines. Jepps don't provide an inset map like the Aeronav charts, which is a huge dis-advantage when conducting a circling approach. Yet pilots get attached to Jepps and find Aeronav charts foreign and clumsy, leading to an argument not unlike North-up versus Track-up or the old pitch/power debate. Whatever ...

Once Jepp Mobile FD is installed, downloading charts seems simple enough if you have a fast network. I'm blessed with a fast ADSL network (you can throw a rock from my front porch and hit the telco's switch building), so the updates seldom take more than a few minutes to install.

The Mobile FD interface has a clean appearance and the chart display is good. There's an easy-to-access screen dimmer, too. There is the issue of landscape format SIDs and STARs, but Aeronav has the same problem.

Jepp Mobile FD's flight planning function lets you specify alternate airports, a great feature and something Garmin has neglected in their GPS flight planning interface for over a decade. And Mobile FD lets you quickly access the terminal procedures for all the airports in your flight plan, something SkyCharts Pro and ForeFlight could learn from.

Wart Factor

The flight planning feature understands most victor airways, with some caveats. If your route includes intersecting victor airways, you must include the intersection that the airways have in common. The flight planner doesn't seem to understand departure or arrival procedures either. Bummer about that.

See the Clear button above the route? Tap on it and you clear not just the route, but all the airports, too! This is dumb for a bunch of obvious reasons. First, said button is located just above route, which leads one to assume that tapping it will clear just the route. Second, the button doesn't say Clear All. Third, there are a bunch of times I'd want to clear a route during the planning stage without blowing away the departure, destination, and alternate airports. Lastly, there is already an X button at the end of each of the airport fields so you can clear them individually. I don't know who is doing Jeppesen's U/I design and usability testing, but they could use some help.

Having spent the better part of my adult life involved in software development, I get the impression that time-to-market pressures overshadowed Jeppesen's QA and acceptance testing. The first version of Mobile FD had more bugs than an Illinois barbecue in June. Subsequent versions have gotten better. The latest version finally offers geo-referencing, but only on en route charts. That's a step in the right direction, but the geo-referencing is clunky and counter-intuitive: You have to tap a button to get Mobile FD to interface with your GPS receiver. All the other iPad EFB software I've used just see that the GPS is there and use it.

Once you've gotten Mobile FD to recognize your iPad's GPS, keep in mind that geo-referencing will be disabled when you display your flight plan. What's up with that? I found that the en route geo-referencing can get ... um ... confused. While supervising an instrument student who was flying a practice DME arc, Mobile FD had some difficulty figuring out which way the aircraft was headed. SkyCharts Pro and ForeFlight had no problem displaying the correct track.

FFM isn't confused ...
SkyCharts Pro isn't confused ...
You're headed the wrong way McFly!

Ugly, Really Ugly

If all this wasn't enough tarnish on the hallowed Jeppesen reputation, here's the capper. Jeppesen Mobile FD's latest chart release contains out-of-date charts for California. That's right. Jeppesen didn't notify me or, to my knowledge, any of their customers. I happened to discover this on my own and had to query them. The two examples I know of (there may be more) are the new RNAV approaches to Petaluma and Willows-Glenn, which replaced the old GPS approaches.

Don't Use for Navigation

Guess we wait until Sept 21?

The new RNAV approaches don't just offer LPV minima that are considerably lower, the fix names and approach courses have changed significantly. Trying to fly one of these approaches with an out-of-date chart could be a serious safety-of-flight issue.

When I emailed Jeppesen's tech support about this, the response was that these approaches would be in the next release. I asked them to verify that Jepp Mobile FD didn't contain all the current charts for California and their response was that the FAA made a large number of changes that overwhelmed Jeppesen's charting division. And for this they charge a premium price?

It's Got to Get Better

I've been a Jeppesen customer for many years, but it keeps getting harder and harder to justify the expense. Buggy software, no MacOS support, and Windows software that can make you want to tear you hair out. I want to like Jeppesen, really I do. It's just not clear that Jeppesen cares about me.


Doug Mansel said...

Wow, I wonder if Jeppesen (Boeing) would notify its airline customers about similar problems (outdated / wrong charts) affecting airports they fly into? Or provide such a cavalier response when queried? Considering the financial resources likely available to Jeppesen / Boeing (given lucrative airline chart contracts) it is indeed surprising that its iPad product is not at least as good or better than other much smaller iPad chart developers. I do think that Jeppesen is breaking new ground with its data driven /rendered iPad charts (vs. scans of printed charts). But, even this has a ways to go before its iPad product could possibly replace paper Jeppesen / AeroNav charts. I doubt Jeppesen's current product "MEETS FAA RECOMMENDED STANDARD FOR IFR AERONAUTICAL CHARTS."

JohnOCFII said...

Too Little, Too Late would be another way to sum up the Jepp product.

Dealing with Jeppesen has never been easy. It is sad to think that almost -every- transaction I have had with them for the past 20 years has been painful.

I really loved the Flitestar flight planner. Heaven Forbid you actually needed support, or an update, or a new software key for the product. I wish someone would make a similar, full-featured auto-route planner for the iPad.

We have 6 Garmin 430Ws in our club. Getting any changes or updates to the data subscription is always a pain, and almost always requires a phone call (during their business hours). Their use of the Internet is weak.

I'm so happy to have alternatives (at least for my iPad) now!