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Autumn 2011

Author: Paul Saunders
This article appears in Issue 3: the Autumn 2011 edition of the Aircraft IT Operations eJournal. For your own free subscription to the eJournal - click on 'SUBSCRIBE FOR FREE' for full details.

iPad/Tablets in Flight Operations - Trend or Solution?

Are tablets, asks Paul Saunders, Operations Director at Conduce Consulting, a Technology fashion trend or a permanent solution?

Since the launch of the iPad 2 in March 2011, you may have heard the words ‘post-PC’ used quite a lot. Indeed these words appear in nearly all Apple Inc. marketing blurb, e.g....

“We are approaching a post-PC era.”

“The majority of our revenue now comes from post-PC devices.”

“We are living in a post-PC world.”

The idea of a world without PCs is debated ‘ad-nauseum’ in tech blogs and journals. Analysis of PC and laptop sales certainly indicates that there is a major shift underway. It is clear that the netbook appears to have had its day, analysts are revising their predictions downwards for the growth of desktop PC sales and the demand for certain tablets completely outstrips supply. Not all tablets though… the Blackberry Playbook is a half-baked flop having only shipped to date the quantity that the iPad sells in 48 hours whilst HP’s abandonment of WebOS has left TouchPad owners with an expensive rectangular Frisbee.

Despite Microsoft seemingly hedging their bets with a mobile and tablet friendly new operating system in the shape of Windows 8 on the horizon, I tend to think that we are not going to see an end to PCs and specifically  laptops for a while yet… having said that, five years is an infinity in technology terms. If Microsoft, ‘defenders of the faith’ for PCs, are preparing for a possible decline in PC sales then you’d better believe that a change is coming. What is certain is that interest in tablets, and especially the iPad, in the Flight Operations arena is very high indeed. I mean, the fact that you’re reading this paper indicates something doesn’t it? Dozens of airlines across the world are either evaluating tablets, building business cases, piloting tablet use or have rolled out tablets in a limited form. I’ve not seen a paradigm shift like this in aviation IT since the late nineties with the mass adoption of email and the internet. Are tablets a passing fad, or do they represent a viable long term technology solution for Operations IT? 

A recent study suggested that 92% of Fortune 500 companies in the USA are either deploying or piloting iPads. Whilst presenting during the Airline & Aerospace MRO & Operations IT Conference at Darmstadt in July this year I posed the question to delegates “how many of you are currently deploying or piloting tablet devices?” Although highly unscientific I was interested to see that approximately 25% of the audience raised their hands. Anecdotally I know that many airlines are making initial steps to roll out tablet devices for a variety of use cases. There is trepidation though largely due to the lack of appropriate useful and connected apps. Some people seem to be waiting for the tablet market to stabilize before committing to a particular hardware, software or operating system choice under the belief that the wrong decision at such an early stage in the market life cycle could lead to a failed return on investment, or worse, a complete waste of time and money. Even innovators and early adopters are proceeding with real caution. I can’t point to a single airline that has yet fully rolled out an entire mobile IT landscape which includes tablets, complete with a full suite of apps and connected systems. Even the most advanced innovators such as Alaska Airlines have built a business case for investment based on a tightly focused set of functions where they have simply replaced paper flight manuals with PDF versions of the same documents. Presumably a broader vision which includes a complete Electronic Flight Bag (EFB) and a full set of connected business apps will come at a later time. Other early adopters, such as United Continental, Delta and BA are wisely following a similar path.

So why aren’t we seeing a bolder and more rapid adoption of the sort of mind blowing, awesome apps and hardware that we use at home or for generic business purposes? Where is the killer app that is going to radically change aviation in the same way that Angry Birds radically changed the way that we waste our time?

OK, so imagine you’re the CIO for an airline wanting to build a business case for the deployment of tablets for your flight and cabin crew. Actual airline CIOs wanting to build such a business case should take notes. Let’s assume for a moment that we’ve already made a decision about which hardware we’re going to buy. Let’s also assume that I’ve got a fantastic deal for the bulk purchase of my devices. We should further take for granted that we have managed to convince IT that this is a worthwhile pursuit and that I’ve made all of the necessary assurances that they going to be given adequate resources to support the vast expansion of their support network and capability requirements. Now what?


    

Obviously, I need to decide on the functions for which we will be using tablets. That should be easy right? We’ve all seen the adverts about how tablets will revolutionize our lives. We’re going to be ultra-connected with simple yet sophisticated software that will connect to and from anything, which means we can do anything for which we used to have to be in the office, but at any time of the day or night from anywhere in the world.

Right? Wrong!

OK, maybe if my job involves reading magazines, video-conferencing with my grandchildren, watching videos, sending emails, writing articles for my blog and that I work from my local coffee shop equipped with perfect Wi-Fi and 3G connectivity, as seems to the case for the tablet users on the TV adverts, then yes, that’s all possible.

However, the current crop of tablet devices and most specifically the iPad were designed purely as consumer devices, not business devices. The tablet market as we know it today is not even 18 months old and the business sector has barely started to bridge the gap that the consumer market has left in its wake. If you are expecting to find a bewildering array of software choices for aviation when you log on to any app store, then you have a rude awakening. Today, there are very few tablet apps that have been specifically designed and developed for the commercial aviation sector. Of the first 100,000 apps that were launched for the iPad, less than 4% are aimed at business and there are only a tiny handful of those apps that are readily available to be purchased and used for my imaginary airline business case. Furthermore, of the pitiful number of commercial aviation targeted apps, there is nothing available that isn’t already offered on other platforms. In aviation we simply don’t see the mind blowing, plentiful and cheap innovation that we have seen for other consumer markets.

Why is this?

First of all, it’s very hard to make money developing and selling mobile apps to aviation. The prospect of developing an app for what is a limited aviation market that has a minefield of regulatory approvals to negotiate is simply too big a risk for most independent technologists to even consider. Compare the aviation app market to the consumer app market and I know where I’d be committing my talent if I were a young developer looking to make my fortune in software development. The software engineers of tomorrow aspire to become successful by developing the next Angry Birds or the next social media craze, which technically is a fair bit simpler than writing something as complex and sophisticated as a crew rostering system. Why would you spend months writing an app for such a limited market that you then have to spend time actively selling and marketing to airlines that have existing legacy solutions to the specific problem that you have solved with your app, when you can spend two nights making a sound board app for the latest comedy catch phrase, put it on the app store for 99 cents and watch the cash roll in.

Consider the developers of GoodReader, a five dollar PDF reading app that synchronizes with a web facing file repository. This app was purchased by Alaska Airlines and rolled out to the iPads purchased for their pilots to help replace the paper flight manuals that they had been hauling around since time immemorial. Assuming that Alaska Airlines has 1400 flight crew; this works out that, after Apple’s 30% cut, GoodReader’s revenue for this gig was a staggering $5,000.

Cue, ironic cheers.

Secondly, it is very hard indeed to change platforms and retrofit a tablet or mobile enabled front end to your existing aviation software product. Focusing, for a moment, on developing for Apple’s iOS iPad and iPhone platform, there are a couple of pre-requisites that you will need.

To develop for the iPad you will need an Apple Mac and an iPad, plus Apple’s Software Development Kit which will set you back $99 a year. No big deal I hear you say…. For around $3000 that’s you tooled up for one developer. One other small but significant investment you will need to make is around $15 on a book like ‘Objective C for Dummies’. Your existing developers may well be proficient in a number of programming languages such as Java or one of the various flavors of C, but unless they have already been exposed to Objective-C which is the proprietary language used to develop for iPhone and iPad, then there is an awful lot of unlearning and relearning that your developers will need to go through. Objective-C is a completely different beast from any programming language in which most modern aviation software products are written. Cross platform support and reskilling for some of the latest generation tablet and mobile devices is a major undertaking for any software vendor and should not be underestimated. This factor alone may account for the forecasted success of more familiar programming platforms such as Android, Windows and HTML5.

Consider also the amount of effort needed to retool an existing aviation software system for use in a mobile tablet environment. Most of the enterprise level aviation software packages that we use today have occupied hundreds of thousands of man-hours of development and contain millions of lines of code. Even the most up-to-date systems are likely to be based on a technical architecture that pre-dates some of the modern techniques and procedures that would preclude a near-total rewrite to bolt on a tablet user interface. I have seen at first-hand the draining of color from the cheeks of software vendor CTOs and CEOs with the shock of realization at just how much resource they are going to have to sink into a major rewrite just to provide today’s technology buyers with something they are growing to expect – their software available on a free iPad app.

Lastly, the general lack of openness in the aviation industry is a major barrier to innovation. From an outsider’s perspective there is a laughable level of opposition to and anxiety about the idea of open and semantic data, open architecture and open source technology compared to equivalent industries. This antiquated attitude to protection of data and intellectual property in aviation by airlines, MROs and software vendors alike is preventing independent technologists from innovating and extending the capabilities of existing software. Instead talented developers are turning their attention to building cheap, simple but lucrative add-ins for social media platforms which tend to have a potential market size measured in millions of users, not thousands.

These factors combined mean that often there is no alternative but to directly commission your own suite of apps. I do not foresee this situation changing in a hurry. It is going to take many months, or even years in some cases, for software vendors to catch up with user demand and release tablet apps of their own or APIs to allow third parties to easily develop apps.  With a meager selection of commercial aviation apps on offer, for what purposes should we be thinking about using tablets in Operations IT?  To answer this question I believe that we have to refer back to what the latest tablet devices were originally designed for and translate the intended use cases for the consumer market to our industry and their potential applications in flight operations.

The iPad and the majority of the latest Android tablet devices were designed specifically for the consumer market and operate best as a means to consume media, for internet browsing, for reading and for staying connected through smart working (using email and other productivity apps).  Choosing the best business applications for tablets involves translating those device strengths into practical use cases. Doing so in the typical flight operations environment poses a number of specific challenges due to the environmental constraints. Right now most operators have restricted, at best, or zero communications in flight and potentially limited connectivity on the ground. We may also have to rely entirely on a single battery charge for the duration of a flight and beyond. Having said that, certain tablet characteristics are well suited to flight operations making them seemingly a more suitable device compared to existing EFBs and other devices which have gone before. Most tablets really do have an all-day battery life. I use an iPad, and this device can go days on end without the need to be charged. Even with continuous use, the batteries should last a full working day with no problem. Today’s tablets are lighter, smaller and more easily stowed than a laptop, a netbook or other equivalent devices.  They are also amongst the most desirable items on the technology market today and this, for me, is a vital factor when it comes to usability and user adoption.

Let’s take it for granted that users will be working smarter using tablets through the usual suite of productivity apps, such as email, calendar, to-do lists, and office apps hooked in to cloud based document storage. That’s pretty obvious and each airline and individual will have their favored methods of working here, as the concept of remote working for flight and cabin crew is already well established for many airlines.

The next most obvious application for tablets, which most early adopting airlines have used as their primary business case driver, is technical publications. For most airlines it should be a fairly routine and cost saving exercise to convert the current distribution of paper manuals to an electronic distribution of PDF documents saving ample time for pilots, crew and technical librarians alike. Cutting down on crew admin time to receive and incorporate manuals into their already heavy flight bags has a double effect on productivity. Saving time that pilots and crew, in the crew room, spend faffing around with manual revisions not only increases their productivity, but reduces the number of duty hours that they consume. A saving in the order of minutes per crew member per month soon factors up to a decent return on investment over a span of years. Some airlines have factored the reduction of the weight of paper being brought on board into their business cases and have calculated attributable fuel savings. Others have included the number of lost productive days based on injuries brought about by lugging around such heavy tomes of manuals in their business cases, and still others have included the cost of mitigating against industrial action by the unions for the alternative of retaining paper manuals for the foreseeable future. It will not be too far in the future that we see more sophisticated technical publication apps which are highly contextual providing a smart way of recognizing the aircraft being boarded and presenting only the necessary documents for the user. There is a lot of scope to move beyond a simple set of synchronized PDF files in future. 


The acquisition of data is perhaps the most obvious solution that you would wish to implement via a tablet device in flight ops. We see reams and reams of paper forms being filled in during a flight, gathered up and sent back to base via 19th century technology, where it is then manually loaded to central systems. Wouldn’t it be great if we could capture that information on a tablet device and auto-magically transmit the data back to base once we re-establish communications on the ground? Having a full suite of apps that hook into an existing central system is the holy grail of tablet ROI, but it is less than straight forward to realize. As I mentioned before, most software vendors of existing aviation business systems simply aren’t geared up to provide such apps, and, worse still, their software does not possess the requisite infrastructure to make third party application development a straightforward or inexpensive proposition. Secondly, most enterprise level business applications require a bi-directional flow of data to operate normally. As well as acquiring data from the user, we normally need to interrogate or validate against data held and maintained in the central repository. In these times, prior to ubiquitous and inexpensive inflight Wi-Fi, it is a much simpler proposition to plan for asynchronous data acquisition.  Rather than looking to provide wall to wall offline capability of existing systems, I would encourage software vendors and airlines to start small and provide apps with limited features for use in cases where validation or cross checking of latest data sets is relatively immaterial. Consider an aircraft maintenance repair system where we are recording vast amounts of data relating to aircraft maintenance, journey logs, defects, maintenance forecasts and so on. None of this data is relevant to a pilot who simply wants to raise a single defect. He has little interest in previous defects or maintenance history, he simply wants to record a fault and have it rectified at the earliest opportunity. The same would apply to cabin defects, crew fatigue reports, cabin safety reports and other safety occurrences. ‘Always connected’ applications are a long way off, so airlines should think about starting small with one eye on the future.


Charts and navigation apps have come a long way in just a few months. The Jeppesen and Lido charting apps which were essentially glorified proof of concepts for the iPad at the beginning of 2011 are now almost fully featured with enough functional and content coverage to meet the needs of the majority of mainstream airlines. Their business models for monetization make great sense, where the app is given away on iTunes, acting as a shop window of capability, whilst content is distributed through subscription services. This is a business model being copied by similar software subscription services. It is unlikely that we will see iPad apps acting as primary navigational devices instead of on-board systems, but it is widely believed that tertiary navigation and weather charting apps might be on their way.  We should expect to see a whole host of niche utility and productivity apps springing up with OEMs, MROs and aviation service providers actively evaluating how they can extend their service capability through technology. Performance optimization and diagnostic apps, which currently need a PC on which to operate, have the potential to be tweaked to run on tablets. The promise of tablet devices running Windows 8 that are just as good as the current forerunning tablets cannot come soon enough for some software vendors.


The consumer IT industry has been characteristically swift to seize upon the technology trend of tablet devices. Unsurprisingly Apple’s iPad is at the forefront of a revolution that is leading to the consumerisation of business software. Airlines around the world have recognized that iPads and other tablets are here for the long haul and have made sensible baby steps towards adopting such technology. In spite of the current limitations that I have mentioned, many airlines have already effectively and creatively constructed business plans for the acquisition of iPads or other tablets, whilst keeping one eye on long term plans for further roll out and utilization. User adoption of such devices and systems is excellent. One airline that I have worked with had no fewer than twenty volunteer flight crew who signed up to use their own personal iPads in a pilot study. Would you expect to see a similar willingness to ‘bring your own technology’ for some of the hardware and software trends that have gone before? Eighty per cent of the same airline’s flight crew are existing iPhone users, so the roll out of iPads to an eager set of users is expected to go without too many hitches and minimal familiarization training.

Analysts predict a bright future for the fledgling tablet market. Apple currently has a 61% market share and has sold nearly 30 million iPads to date. Recent Gartner studies suggest that by 2015 there will have been approaching 300 million iPad sales and it is hard to believe that they will have held off the might of Android to have such a strong market share by that time.  Even with the most conservative market estimates, it is widely believed that tablets will be pretty abundant. Combining this with ubiquitous Wi-Fi, in-flight connectivity and the next generation of aviation and business apps on the horizon, could we really be seeing the advent of a technology revolution? I’m not sure about the demise of the PC, but I do think that tablets represent a long term technology solu
tion rather than a simple trend.

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