Airlines phasing in iPads for pilots

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iPads will soon be ubiquitous in American Airlines cockpits, but don’t expect pilots to be playing “Angry Birds” instead of paying attention to the flight path.

iPads will soon be ubiquitous in American Airlines cockpits, but don’t expect pilots to be playing “Angry Birds” instead of paying attention to the flight path.

AA is striving to go all-digital by the end of 2012, replacing pilots’ bulky 35-pound bags full of navigational charts, log books and other flight reference materials with the 1.5-pound Apple tablets.

It’s a move that the airline says will save at least $1.2 million a year, based on current fuel prices.

“That’s even on the low end,” said Capt. David Clark, an active AA pilot and spokesman for the company. “Really, we know what each aircraft burns in terms of weight per hour, so for every pound, you can measure the fuel burn.”

iPads aren’t new on the scene. The Federal Aviation Administration approved the use of the tablets in 2011, but American is the first commercial carrier to receive the agency’s approval to use them in the cockpit during all phases of flight from gate to gate, including during landing and takeoff.

Many airlines are using flight apps, which don’t require Wi-Fi once installed on the tablets.

Clark says the initiative is designed to not only save American money but, since each flight bag is made up of thousands of pages that must be updated constantly, to be a valuable time-saver as well.

“It takes me anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour, an hour and a half, for revisions to take out the old page and put new pages in. That’s at least three to four times a month,” he said.

User error in misplacing a page here or there will be eliminated, improving the navigational charts’ accuracy. “We’ve got all of our charts into a digital format,” Clark said. “Every two weeks, we get revisions. It pushes updates, we touch the icon, and it updates.”

Eliminating the need for the reams of paper each kitbag requires is another consideration, as well as preventing personal injuries.
“Each kitbag can weigh 35 to 45 pounds,” Clark said. “It’s a quality of life thing. We have a lot of pilots in these very small cockpits that are trying to gingerly place kitbags in very small (areas). We’ve seen pulled muscles and injuries on duty.”

United Airlines has been paperless since last year, distributing 11,000 iPads to all United and Continental pilots for use in the cockpit. It’s unclear if or how soon United will match American in getting the FAA’s approval for iPad use during all phases of flight.

Delta says that although it has been experimenting with moving to an electronic flight bag program, no formal decision has been made to go to tablets just yet.

While the iPad is the only tablet currently approved by the FAA to replace current flight kits, other tablets could be authorized as well.

“It’s a game-changer,” Clark said. “I’m in my 23rd year (with American Airlines). If you just fly one trip with me, you could see the amazing difference all that weight, and all the monotony of doing all those revisions, can make.”

He understands that consumers may have concerns about playing games or being distracted by other entertaining iPad apps.

“We are professionals, we have rules that we follow, and our licenses and crew depend on our being professional and following the rules. And our pilots are good at that. We self-police, so we will be keeping an eye out.”

About the author


Editor in chief for eTurboNew is Linda Hohnholz. She is based in the eTN HQ in Honolulu, Hawaii.