How iPads transformed the cockpit for busy Alaska Airlines pilots
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."
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."
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