Is your next flight being guided by iPad?

Pilots in the cockpit

We’ve all probably made use of a tablet in the workplace at one point, whether you were working on cloud documents or procrastinating on Facebook at lunchtime.  But did you know that pilots now use tablets to help them fly your plane?

In 2013, American Airlines completed the successful roll-out of its Electronic Flight Bag, replacing the conventional but cumbersome paper-based manuals.  More recently, Ryanair launched a similar fleet-wide initiative, swapping its traditional flight manuals for iPads.

‘The logistical challenges of delivering information to crew are instantly simplified with the introduction of the iPad as an Electronic Flight Bag,’ said Michael Hickey, Ryanair’s Group Director of Operations.  ‘A paperless cockpit is an efficient cockpit.’

We took a look at a few of the benefits – and the potential drawbacks – of an aeroplane aided by Wi-Fi.

The efficiency of going digital

Anyone who’s ever played road-trip navigator before the advent of Google maps will remember just how unwieldy the average physical map can be.  And it’s no different for airline pilots.

Panning, zooming and scrolling through charts are all made easier with a digital interface; and even non-interactive elements, such as operating manuals and airport information, can be browsed much more quickly.  In an emergency situation, you wouldn’t want a pilot leafing through reams of instructions when they could just type in a keyword.

And that’s before you start to think about the sheer bulk of the paperwork these tablets are replacing.

Older flight bags can include as much as 35 pounds of paper, and these heavy carry-ons used to be one of American Airline’s biggest sources of pilot injuries.  An iPad weighing just 1.35 pounds, however, gives pilots access to massive amounts of up to date information. And it can be safely tucked under one arm.

‘Our Electronic Flight Bag program has a significant positive environmental and cost-savings impact,’ said David Campbell of American Airlines.  ‘In fact, removing the [paper-based] kitbag from all of our planes saves a minimum of 400,000 gallons and $1.2 million of fuel annually.’

That’s a significant saving against the cost of business electricity required to charge up a few iPads.

But will it take off?

Of course, everyone who’s ever used a mobile device knows that they’re not perfect.  Malware, connection issues, third-party software or even just a spilt cup of coffee are all problems that a paper-based kit can resist.  And let’s not forget user errors: it’s much easier to crash an app than it is to ruin a book.

Just last month, for example, American Airlines was forced to delay multiple flights when an iPad app used by the pilots stopped working.  In some cases, planes had to return to the gate to connect to the Wi-Fi in order to get things working again.  Delays on the runway are to be expected, but you can hardly return to a Wi-Fi zone when you’re cruising at 10,000 feet.

More worryingly, the US Government Accountability Office recently warned of the dangers of airlines relying too heavily on online tools, saying ‘Modern aircraft are increasingly connected to the internet.  This interconnectedness can potentially provide unauthorized remote access to aircraft avionics systems.’

It’s not yet clear whether a reliance on mobile technology will become an aviation norm.  But for every step we take towards an increasingly digital world, it’s important that we take steps to prevent the risks.

How do you feel about tablets replacing paper on flights? Join the discussion on LinkedIn or Google+.

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