A version of this article appears in the May 19 edition of Aviation Week & Space Technology.

As many general aviation aircraft owners and operators are becoming aware, ADS-B (Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast) is slowly making its way into U.S. airspace as part of the FAA’s NextGen program. By Jan. 1, 2020, all U.S. aircraft—GA and commercial—will be required to have FAA-compliant ADS-B installed in order to operate in controlled airspace. The deployment of ADS-B in the U.S. promises to de-congest airspace, enhance safety though greater pilot situational awareness and create an all-around more-efficient air traffic management system.

Unfortunately for GA aircraft owners, upgrading is not free and the fleet is way behind schedule. In March, the FAA reported that the current rule-compliant ADS-B installation rate for GA aircraft is so low that a meager 1,200 aircraft had been equipped with the mandated avionics. This confirms what many industry watchers have long suspected and should serve as a major wake-up call. 

 Some 224,000 aircraft constitute the GA fleet in the U.S. Our estimates are that 157,000 use ATC services, and are therefore the most likely candidates to upgrade with the mandated equipage. With less than six years to complete the work, more than 30,000 installations will need to occur annually, or around 120 per day when factoring in the 260 business days per year. That is 25 times the current installation rate. A train wreck is coming if on Jan. 1, 2020, tens of thousands of GA aircraft are instantly grounded. 

While the sheer volume of installations alone poses a serious threat to meeting the mandate, there is another significant factor that may threaten timely equipage: FAA Certificated Repair Station capacity. How many installations can U.S. repair stations handle during this five-year ramp-up period? 

Preliminary analysis conducted by Nexa Advisors—based on FAA Certificated Repair Station data, FAA ADS-B installation requirements, Capstone program reports and Aircraft Electronics Association repair station surveys—indicates there are about 900 FAA Certificated Repair Stations in the U.S. capable of performing ADS-B installations. Each one takes several days to several weeks to complete and certificate. 

Even with this information in hand, repair stations do many things, not just install avionics. Furthermore, the great majority of repair stations are small businesses with fewer than 10 employees, not all of them technicians. So how much time will these repair stations realistically be able to dedicate to ADS-B installations? 

As an example, assume 50% of each of the 900 repair stations’ capacity is set aside to perform ADS-B installations for the GA fleet. With a sevenday installation turnaround (60-plus labor hours per upgrade), the repair stations could collectively perform only 16,800 installations per year, which will fall short of what is required to meet the FAA deadline. This means that, without an increase in repair station capacity, only 84,000 installations can be completed in time. One out of two aircraft will not be serviced, an outcome that is totally unacceptable.

Waiting for the inevitable ADS-B ramp-up exacerbates the problem. The sooner equipage begins at a sustainable rate—25 times today’s pace—the sooner repair stations can add to their labor forces and avionics manufacturers to their production lines to meet demand.

As part of NextGen, ADS-B promises safer skies for the general aviation community. Contrary to recent statements made by general aviation leaders about progress on NextGen negating the march to privatization of FAA, there are many signs of government-inflicted trouble brewing. For example, Congress granted financial incentives for GA to begin equipping early, and entrusted FAA bureaucrats with administering this 100% private-sector-financed program in 2012. 

FAA should approve these incentives quickly by acting on any existing worthy applications, to unlock hundreds of millions of dollars of available private-sector capital that will help fulfill FAA’s own mandate. Failure to act soon could lead to a bureaucratically invented train wreck that anyone can see is coming if action is not taken now.

Michael Dyment is the founder and managing partner of Nexa Capital Partners and a general partner of the NextGen GA Fund.