iPads In The Cockpit

An enroute chart displayed on the EFB

There’s new tech appearing in a cockpit near you – pilots are going (nearly) paperless. Since the early 1900’s, airline crews (first in airships, then airplanes) have been using paper charts and maps to find their way around the world. Over 100 years later, we are finally dumping the heavy flight kits and turning to tablet-based computers to find our way.

My airline recently began the transition from paper charts to the iPad. I’ve had my new “Electronic Flight Bag” (or EFB) for a few weeks now and I love it.  Read on to learn everything you ever wanted to know about this new cockpit gadget…

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In the previous article in this series, The Flight Kit Demystified, I wrote about all the stuff that pilots have to tote around in our flight kits. Those kits weigh 35 pounds and are very time consuming and costly to maintain.

Airlines worldwide are transitioning from paper charts to tablet computers. U.S. carriers JetBlue, American, Alaska, United, and Southwest are all transitioning to the the iPad. Shipping giants UPS and FedEX are also adopting the iPad. The notable exception is Delta, who recently announced they will be using the Microsoft Surface 2 tablet as their EFB.  This decision was apparently met with some resistance by Delta pilots who had been expecting iPads. AppleInsider.com has an interesting story about the decision.

Pilot’s who have adopted the Electronic Flight Bag couldn’t be happier. No more 35 pound flight kits, no more spending hours every month updating binders and no more lost or torn charts. Best of all, organizing and quickly displaying the correct chart or map on the EFB is a breeze; and that translates to enhanced safety.

It’s clear that pilots are happy with the new technology. What about the airlines? What’s in it for them? The old paper system requires a lot of manpower to maintain. Distributing twice-monthly paper revisions to thousands of pilots scattered world-wide is no small task. EFB data distribution happens via the internet with a push of a button; it’s fast, easy and cheap. This translates into a large administrative savings.

Out with the old!
Out with the old!

The source of real savings for the airlines might come as a surprise. The Electronic Flight Bags save fuel. Fuel? Yep! The biggest expense for an airline is fuel. Every pound in an airplane requires fuel to be burned to carry it. When we carry extra fuel due to bad weather, the engines must burn extra fuel to carry the extra fuelEvery pound counts.

The EFB saves about 35 pounds of weight per pilot. This may seem trivial when a fully loaded wide body jet can weigh 350,000 to nearly a million pounds, but consider how many flights an airline flies. Delta has over 5000 flights a day. Now, figure the flights per year and the fuel consumption for those extra pounds adds up.

In their Press Release, Delta states their EFB program “is expected to reduce fuel usage by an estimated 1.2 million gallons per year which translates to a 26-million-pound reduction in carbon emissions.” Delta estimates a savings of $13 million per year. That’s enough to make any CEO take notice.

Angry Birds in the cockpit?

No birds in the cockpit!
No birds allowed. (Display is simulated!!)

The typical EFB consists of an app that displays navigation charts and a document reader that allows quick access to company manuals and references.

I’ve heard concerns that pilots might be up front using EFBs for “unauthorized activities” instead of doing important stuff like flying. Not to worry. The applications and data contained on the EFB are carefully controlled. Unlike a run-of-the-mill iPad, you can’t throw a bunch of movies and games on an EFB. These things are tightly locked down with special software to ensure that the EFB is all business.

The cockpit tablet computer revolution is well under way. The next time you’re relaxing in 15C, your flight crew will likely be using this new tech, enhancing efficiency and safety.

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