How iPads transformed the cockpit for busy Alaska Airlines pilots

Alaska Airlines First Officer Patty Tomich uses one of the company-issued iPads to check flight information on board her aircraft. Credit: Courtesy of Alaska Airlines

In the old days of 2010, some 1,500 Alaska Airlines pilots were still carrying heavy flight bags loaded with flight maps, flight manuals, and loads of other paperwork that was subject to frequent updates. Pilots had to replace old pages by manually inserting thick envelopes of new information – some 5,500 pages a year.

Those updates took lots of time, and all of that paper was heavy and unwieldy, said Captain Jim Freeman, a pilot who has been flying for Alaska since 1984.

Even more important, though, was the realization that all of those paper manuals and maps, along with their constant and frenetic updates, were causing information overload for pilots who already had plenty to do in the cockpits of their aircraft -- managing the demands of flight controllers, the weather, and increasingly crowded skies, said Freeman.

"We were burying people in paper and paper doesn't really search well," he said in an interview with CITEworld. "The problem was an information management crisis."

Today, that's all changed. Alaska Airlines pilots are all using Apple iPads loaded with flight manuals, aeronautical maps, and other critical apps so that they can receive faster, more reliable information updates while increasing their in-flight efficiency, according to Freeman. "It's really change management inside a company. That's really what the revolution with tablets is all about."

A trial 

The iPad deployment at Alaska Airlines began small in May of 2010. Based on Freeman's suggestion, the airline distributed 10 iPads as part of a field test to see how they might be used. The airline was the first to move to electronic flight information for their crews.

During the flight trials, the company's pilots carried their full complement of paper manuals and charts as they tested out the iPads, just in case the papers were needed. After just one month, the first officers in the crews were no longer using their paper charts. After another month, the crews didn't even have to carry their paper charts anymore.

The first results of those initial tests were so positive that a trial involving 100 pilots was quickly set up in the winter of 2010. By then, the benefits of the iPads in the cockpits became obvious and efforts got underway to move all of the company's pilots to so-called digital flight bags.

When the trials began, the iPads couldn't be used for flight below 10,000 feet, where take-offs and landings are occurring, but that restriction was removed by November 2011, according to Freeman. The devices have been tested to ensure that they don't interfere with the avionics systems in the aircraft used by Alaska. While they are used in the cockpit, the devices are placed in airplane mode and are not transmitting or receiving using WiFi.

By November of 2011, every Alaska Airlines pilot was using the specially equipped iPads. The move, said Freeman, has been ground-breaking for the company and its pilots.

"You take this application, you take a modern tablet, then with a few finger swipes and a couple of touches, voila, there's your new chart," he said. "Now you can see speed restrictions or whatever else is going on. You're just faster about managing information. You're always planning ahead and being able to react better."

The iPads are loaded with a special Alaska Airlines version of flight management software called FliteDeck Pro from aviation training and navigation vendor Jeppesen. The app manages departures and arrivals, provides navigational charts en route, includes automatic updating, and imports other manuals needed by pilots, such as runway maps for each destination.  Pilot training materials are also being placed on the iPads so that pilots can view them anytime for easier training and updates without requiring visits to training centers.

Even the small things are easier using the tablets. For instance, in the past when the weather was bad, pilots had to pull out a paper map along with a bright flashlight so they could see where they were heading, said Freeman. The flashlight or spotlight could be blinding due to their brightness in the darkened cockpit.

"Now you have a tablet that won't be as bright and won't ruin your vision," he said. "It's really an incredible idea to have these tablets. It's a communicator. It's an information manager."

The airline also liked the idea of saving fuel by ditching the previously heavy flight manuals. Alaska's pilots can now carry a small bag that incudes their iPad, a headset, and required paper charts that are still required if they are flying to Alaska or Hawaii. 

Not everybody was on board at first

One important factor in the successful deployment was getting buy-in from the company's executives.

"What we learned was you need really big executive support" for such a move, said Freeman. "It's a big paradigm shift. One of the big things we had to do was to have a conversation with the legal department and with company executives. We had to learn how to get together and to find common ground."

The next issue was deciding which tablets to use, but that was made easier after choosing the Jeppesen application, which at the time was available only for iPads, said Freeman. The Apple devices were also chosen because they would be easier to manage for privacy and security, he said.

Getting buy-in from the company's pilots also took some work.

"You need to soak into the DNA of the users," said Freeman. "The biggest thing is parallel run training, letting them learn with it, letting them carry their paper charts alongside the iPads to prove their worth at the beginning. We did a slow transition."

The pilots are permitted to use their company-issued iPads for personal use as well, for photos and viewing movies, but are asked to use them responsibly. So far, email isn't available using the iPads, but Freeman said he hopes those capabilities are introduced in the future.

"You give me a WiFi connection and a Starbucks and I can do anything I need to do," he said. "It's pretty powerful."

One of the biggest compliments received so far about the iPads came in from a pilot who admitted that in the past, it was difficult to always keep up with the flight manual updates when they were paper-based, said Freeman.  "What we're finding is that people are actually reading more of the manuals now. It was kind of a pain to maintain and read all those documents. Now they're looking at them more and we're empowering our employees. It did change the way we do things."

Other airlines are also working on their own tablet deployments or testing, said Freeman, including American Airlines, United Airlines and UPS.

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