Can you fly with an expired navigation database?
It depends on where you intend to fly:
The issue has been around since inflight navigation databases were invented and things got messy with the United States FAA's reversal on including the problem in MELs. The ICAO has been silent on the issue since 2008 so their answer back then stands. Recent SAFA checks, I've heard, are in keeping with the regulatory "No" answer. So, what follows, is as best I can tell, the answer to the question.
Everything here is from the references shown below, with a few comments in an alternate color.
Back in 1999, FAA MMEL Policy Letter PL-98, Revision 0, granted MMEL relief for an out of currency navigation database. Revision 1 removed that relief, causing much consternation. But a careful reading reveals that the provision was removed because you can only MMEL an inoperative item. A database that is out of date is not inoperative. Bottom line: you can fly with an expired navigation database without MMEL relief under U.S. FAA policy.
[InFO 17007] Navigation databases should be current for the duration of flight. However, if the database is not current prior to flight, or if the Aeronautical Information Regulation and Control (AIRAC) cycle changes during flight, operators should establish procedures to be conducted prior to flight that ensure the accuracy of the navigation database for the route to be flown. One acceptable method is to compare the database with the current applicable aeronautical charts to verify navigation information prior to dispatch. If changes to the current charts for the route to be flown (including alternate information) have been published, the aircraft database should not be used to conduct flight operations. It is the operator’s responsibility to ensure that the highest level of safety is maintained when utilizing out of currency navigation databases for flight operations.
This language appears to give us the latitude to compare the expired database with applicable aeronautical charts prior to dispatch. But what happens if you discover an error? "The aircraft database should not be used to conduct flight operations."
The following appears in the ICAO Doc 9613 ICAO Performance Based Navigation Manual, under the Implementing RNAV 10 (Chapter 1) / Navigation Specification / En route section (¶1.3.11). Similar language exists for RNP 5 (¶220.127.116.11.3) and RNAV 5 (¶2.3.6). The section on "Implementing RNAV and RNP" also mentions the database needs to be current.
Some have argued that ¶18.104.22.168 gives you provisions to "establish procedures" for a change, but a careful reading is for a "change during the flight." You cannot takeoff with an expired database.
It appears the letter of the ICAO law says the navigation database must be current.
[ICAO Doc 9613, ¶1.3.11] Navigation database
If a navigation database is carried, it must be current and appropriate for the operations and must include the navaids and waypoints required for the route.
[ICAO Doc 9613, ¶22.214.171.124] Functional requirements — navigation displays and functions
A navigation database, containing current navigation data officially promulgated for civil aviation, which can be updated in accordance with the aeronautical information regulation and control (AIRAC) cycle and from which ATS routes can be retrieved and loaded into the RNAV system.
[ICAO Doc 9613, ¶126.96.36.199] Preflight Planning
Note.— Navigation databases are expected to be current for the duration of the flight. If the AIRAC cycle is due to change during flight, operators and pilots should establish procedures to ensure the accuracy of the navigation data, including the suitability of navigation facilities used to define the routes and procedures for flight.
[ICAO Doc 9613, ¶188.8.131.52.3] At system initialization, pilots must confirm the navigation database is current and verify that the aircraft position has been entered correctly.
Chances are your MEL contains the expired database provision. It isn't a big deal, so long as you have that removed within two years of the notice.
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