The iconic leather storage cases seen piggybacking a pilot’s luggage in terminals worldwide are quickly becoming a thing of the past. Their contents, consisting mainly of navigation charts and manuals, are being transferred onto tablet devices called “electronic flight bags (EFB’s)”. EFB’s are the wave of the future for airlines, but yesterday’s news for General Aviation Pilots. Although today’s modern airliners are packed with advanced technology, they surprisingly lack many fantastic advances widely used by even the newest student pilots. Injecting new technologies into the airline world boils down to a concept in business known as ‘cost-benefit analysis’ – that is, the tipping point for corporations to justify the return from investments.
For those that don’t know, traditionally airline pilots have carried with them their own navigation charts, aircraft manuals, and operating procedures in paper form (hence the need for a storage case). Considering the vast list of destinations served by an airline, the complexity of aircraft systems, and the equally daunting operating guidelines pilots must follow, the manuals that facilitate a pilot’s repertoire typically weight in excess of 50 lbs. Case in point, as a Boeing 737 pilot at my airline, the aircraft-specific navigation charts I’m required to carry span every North American, Caribbean, and Central American city we serve along with any possible alternate airport in the event of a diversion. Although the charts representing these cities are printed on tissue-thin paper, they easily fill three 2-inch binders to their bursting point.
Alongside the burden of carrying these charts and manuals is the need for regular revision of their contents. For example, twice a month, revisions to our navigation charts are handed out. These revisions generally require individual pages to be removed and replaced with updated ones. Imagine if you had to revise your phonebook twice a month, removing random pages and replacing them with pages containing updated phone numbers, multiplied times hundreds of pages - that’s the tediousness I’m getting at. Forget about the tediousness, how about the potential errors that can be made? Is it possible to accidentally discard the wrong page? Sure it is. And how about trying to reference this vast array of data in a timely manner? Try finding “John Smith” in the phonebook - which one of these 50 Johns is the one I’m looking for? Exactly, it’s time consuming, but electronic searching quickly narrows that list down. As pilots, we’re all professionals that pride ourselves on a solid knowledge base. But with so many policies needing to be followed to the “T”, oftentimes we’re forced to refer to our manuals for an answer. Maybe we have a medical specimen in the cargo hold that is packed in dry ice. How much dry ice are we allowed to carry on board (yes there’s a limit)? “Hey Captain, do you know that off the top of your head?” And so ensues the challenge of finding that little gem of information buried deep in our manual somewhere. It’s sometimes a competition to see who can find it fastest. There must be a better way!
And on the seventh day, the EFB was born. Finally, a way to put all that ‘stuff’ at a pilot’s fingertips. No more time consuming hands-on manual revisions with vast room for error. Simply connect the tablet to the Internet and download the latest revisions for an error-free outcome. Electronic format also makes for faster referencing. “How much dry ice can we carry, Captain?” Type in the search window “dry ice” and a few seconds later, low and behold, the answer! And how about the weight savings that a tablet provides? Extra weight on an aircraft equals more fuel consumption, and fuel is pricey these days! Sure, the 50 pounds saved doesn’t sound significant on its own, but that’s 100 pounds saved between two pilots on one aircraft, multiplied times thousands of daily flights, 365 days a year. Quite significant in that context, wouldn’t you say?
In the airlines, safety and efficiency are priorities, but cost is also taken into consideration. There was a point where the cost of supplying each pilot with their own tablet device (my airline has close to 12,000 pilots) did not justify the perceived benefits. That balance has now shifted, but why? For starters, tablets , like all new technologies over the course of time, are now more affordable. Injury prevention is another factor. Upon entering the cockpit, pilots usually place their flight cases on the far side of their respective seats. Performing this simple action surprisingly places a great deal of strain on one’s back if done improperly. The result has been numerous on-the-job back injury medical claims, costing the airlines a great deal of capital. Additionally, consider the evolution of the airline industry. Increased fuel efficiency has spawned a broader range of aircraft utilization, mainly recognized by the longer list of destinations a particular model of aircraft flies. Also, mergers of two airlines into one (an industry trend lately) have consequently required the alignment of separate operating practices. All of these factors have driven the need for more navigation charts, regular procedure changes, as well as enhanced communication. Trying to facilitate these needs via paper is overwhelming and cumbersome. As a result, EFB’s provide the needed benefit of storage capacity for vast amounts of data without a weight penalty, as well as efficient updates to policies and better communication.
The future of EFB’s in the airline environment is bright. Going forward, enhanced usage is expected with respect to Wi-Fi Internet. The birth of onboard Wi-Fi signals will allow pilots to monitor a real-time big-weather picture. As it stands today, flight crews print a snapshot of a weather screen during flight planning, as in-flight viewing is limited to the range of onboard weather radar. The ability to stay up-to-speed with a broader picture of what lies thousands of miles ahead of the aircraft will help pilots plan appropriately. Furthermore, future development of various EFB “apps” will surely present useful tools that I cannot even begin to speculate. It’s funny; I can’t imagine how I get through each day without a mobile phone, even though I’ve spent more than half of my life without one. I’m confident EFB’s will ultimately yield the same sentiment!