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Summer 2012

Author: Jim Freeman
This article appears in Issue 6: the Summer 2012 edition of the Aircraft IT Operations eJournal. For your own free subscription to the eJournal - click on 'SUBSCRIBE FOR FREE' for full details.


Alaska Airlines Case Study: A warm reception for iPad EFB in Alaska

By thinking about the pilots as well as the technology, as Captain Jim Freeman, iPad Project Pilot, Alaska Airlines explains, a new EFB has been welcomed by its users.

Background 

When we started the iPad project at Alaska, everyone wanted to know how much fuel we would save by reducing the weight of paper and how light we could make a pilot bag. When business cases are written, those are the sort of justifications we all use. What we really wanted was nothing short of a revolution in information management. It was time for pilots to get a processor upgrade.


Pilots needed to access traditional paper information and manage the growing compilation of operational support documents

We had been watching the development of electronic flight bags for several years and we initially thought in terms of manuals, charts and performance for pilots. As we brought on centralized load planning and AOC datalink at the airline, some of our initial EFB considerations did not seem so important. What we came to believe was that, even though we might put the manuals and charts on a jet in paper or with an EFB, pilots would need the operational information when they were not on the jet to plan and study. So we would probably also need a device to supplement any EFB. Alaska started to look at e-Readers and net books, searching for the ‘magic device’.

As the iPad was adopted by the aviation community, the idea of the new leather flight bag emerged and we began to believe we just might replace manuals and charts with only a single portable device. We could physically improve on the weight and the amount of content a traditional flight bag could never carry. We thought, and Alaska believed, that if you could enable your workers with better information management, you would enable your business in all respects.

What can possibly be best described as a collision of competing agendas ensued with the start of our iPad project. Flight Operations had an information management crisis to solve that was only getting more critical every year and, with the advent of the iPad, we saw a very compelling answer at hand. The solution had to be a compromise between enabling our pilots to better manage information and legacy, corporate privacy and security concerns, and regulatory avionics processes.

Challenges

While each business and each workgroup within a business has different needs, the pilots at Alaska needed to be able to access their traditional paper information and find a way to manage the growing compilation of operational support documents they were never able to physically carry. Document formatting, organization and predictability of change also affected our ability as pilots to manage information. Pilots essentially, live out of a suitcase, and the human factors of carrying a corporate device called for some new strategies in device management. We ideally wanted to carry one device to stay connected with our personal lives and accomplish the goals of the company.

From the Flight Operation's side, finding freedom from a tradition print and distribution process was important as it frequently limited our ability to be quick with change and caused us to make many compromises in timing our changes to include our regulatory approval processes. We knew we could not stop change, but we wanted to control it to the extent possible. To borrow an over-used phrase, our pilots need to know where the cheese is and just when it is important to check for the latest flavor. Change is only effective when the user can both find and understand it.  Standardizing the device or platform each pilot carried also paid dividends in other areas for the company, the most notable of which was training.

Traditional IT would call for an open architecture device like Windows to enable e-Discovery, network access and updating. The problem is that this outlook was at odds with a mobile work force not readily available for the updates process as it exists today, not to mention the very real overhead required to manage an open system properly. Arriving for duty, a pilot's contract and duty time are not geared to operating system and network security updates.

The iPad’s closed operating system opened the door to a conversation about IT made easier. World-wide, the e-Discovery versus personal device used at work conversation has been a passionate one. A balance had to be found between creating a trust environment (trust your employees and they will trust you) and legitimately guarding the company against loss of proprietary or personally sensitive information. We never searched a pilot's flight bag when they reported for work, but now that it is electronic, do we start? At Alaska, for the present, you could describe our risk mitigation as limited access and content in concert with fairly standard device security protocols such as remote wipe and an encrypted hard drive.

Our legacy avionics process has produced safe reliable instrumentation and flight management systems. Arguably, a bit outdated when they arrive in production as compared to a consumer device, but safe and reliable. We believed we could find a way to leave core duties to the legacy process while complementing the pilot's information management process. To do this we, along with many other airlines, proposed simple guidelines for solutions that did not interface with or try to replace our avionics. Our pilots found it increasingly difficult to accept the fact that a private airplane could so easily have command of so much more weather information with reliable off the shelf devices not available to us in the part 121 world. The process to get this information, while technically possible, was invariably very expensive, time consuming and really just out of reach for our companies.

The last challenge was, and continues to be, the pilot or end user. Like any work force, they represent the complete spectrum of attitudes towards change and in particular an electronic ‘gadget’. In our world, we only get credit when our entire work force is conversant with the new technology. While we have new technology, we had to be very careful to avoid overwhelming the user with change. By change I mean not just the new tool but avoiding a ramping up of information delivery. The edict Alaska is trying to accomplish could be summarized by stating we wish to use new technology to help users absorb change and control its pace, not to become technically compliant by checking off the legal requirements when change is released. This does mean better business by the way. Our pilots found they had to think differently about how we traditionally studied. The manual was now very light and always up to date but the process of highlighting and making notes was different and habits had to be adjusted. Our recent field trials of a mounting solution also highlighted a change that has slowly taken place for most airlines in how we conduct a procedure when some evaluators commented on the change from referencing a chart on the yoke to one displayed in the window to the side.  We program from an onboard avionics database, verify and fly a procedure. Done correctly, there is much less cause to routinely look at a paper chart or its replacement once the briefing evolution is completed.

Alaska's Program

The iPad's unique operating system has allowed compromise between all parties involved. While the closed architecture nature of the iOS does not permit traditional e-Discovery, it does allow ‘in application’ discovery and at the same time privacy for the end user. It can be both personal and business with appropriate policy and device management strategies. Alaska delivers pilot manuals and, very soon, Jeppesen charting information to the pilots using two primary applications. To date, device maintenance has been limited to lost or stolen, broken or forgotten passwords. We just recently changed the device password to a simple password to allow better access in flight especially during turbulence. We expect to also realize a reduction in forgotten password resets as well.

Corporate security is managed with an MDM (mobile device management) vendor and a policy strategy as follows:


  • No network access for iPad;
  • iPads are updated using the world wide web;
  • No personal email;
  • Corporate email is hosted by company servers for tracking purposes;
  • Backup to cloud servers is not allowed;
  • Manuals content is analyzed for security sensitivity;
  • Simple password allowed for quick and easy flight access;
  • MDM provides ability to reset or wipe, enforces protocols and delivers company applications;
  • Version control is managed by policy for the iOS and GoodReader application with notifications published to the user
  • Version control for Jeppesen aeronautical data is managed through our MDM by not presenting  updates unless they have been tested and approved

Pilots are the administrators of their iPad by virtue of their own Apple ID and password. This is not normally the case with corporate devices but, in this instance, it speaks to the trust element, allows personalization and helping create, as much as possible, the new ‘electronic’ leather flight bag. Our pilots have always been responsible for their required books and aeronautical charts, just as they are for a current medical or license. It is now much easier to manage them and the focus and time can be spent on understanding content.

Manuals are divided into two separate groups – required and reference. These are synchronized to the reading application by secure FTP servers using ‘launch points’ from within the Flight Operations, Technical Publications Department. Thanks to our IT Department, updating is as simple as drag and drop. This provides the ability to rapidly respond to mandated emergency change and also allows a policy that only requires the need to ‘Sync’ the required manuals before departure from base. Alaska’s new catch phrase is ‘Sync Before You Fly’. The importance of division of manuals is a reduction in time spent waiting for electronic updates, if they must be made, from a base Resource Center in a time critical situation. To provide redundancy for operational reliability, required manuals and documents may also be separately downloaded directly from a separate server on an as needed basis. Revisions are accompanied by linked highlights which summarize change and when touched take the user to the location in the manual where the change has occurred.

Routine ‘must read’ and general information files as well as administrative information are still maintained using a centralized pilot web page. When an attachment on the web page is also included in synchronization files, it is noted; otherwise a pilot may essentially print to their iPad for later reading.

Finally, aeronautical charts will be provided by a customized application that can only be obtained by pilots provisioned by the company and enrolled in the mobile device management program using a private store. Weather information is also available electronically via our OPSPEC approved weather vendor WSI, using an iPad application. This application provides textual information as well as graphical to help form a better partnership with our Dispatch. When we are eventually allowed to access internet services in flight for weather updates, both pilot and dispatcher will be looking at the same source.


Weather information is available via WSI, using an iPad application

From a regulatory standpoint, Alaska has elected to go with a RAM Products temporary suction cup mount. It has proven to be very robust in field trials and testing for retention of mass, plus it can be readily removed from the aircraft without any tools. It will not be part of the traditional maintenance program but instead be treated as part of the aircraft library managed by Flight Operations. While most of our current aircraft library is being eliminated, for now Alaska maintains its emergency procedures guide Quick Reference Handbook (QRH) in paper even though an exact replica is available in the electronic manuals system. As an aside Boeing has just completed development of an electronic QRH which will once again challenge existing paradigms as it is analyzed.


Alaska has elected to go with a suction cup mount

Alaska’s iPads are owned by IT and managed jointly by Flight Operations and IT.  Probably one of the more important aspects of the project was the creation of a mobile device task force and, in Flight Operations, a framework for analyzing suggestions for new applications and their impact on the operation, corporate security concerns and relative worth to the business. As we add new iPad models to the IT inventory, Flight Operations must perform EMI (Electromagnetic Interference) and rapid decompression testing on a sample of the desired model before petitioning to have it added to the OPSPEC. By not choosing to interface with our avionics, we also greatly simplify security and regulatory concerns. We actually create redundancy in information when you consider our FMC (Flight Management Computer) database contains the information needed to safely conduct an approach and landing as well as our Class One iPad EFB.

To summarize, our regulatory program is designed to allow operation in the critical phase of flight:

  • Alaska uses the iPad as a Class One EFB with Type B charting software;
  • We use the RAM Mount as ‘viewable stowage’;
  • EMI and rapid decompression testing are performed by model on a sample device.

User Response

Reception of this change by the pilots has been largely positive. The biggest challenge has been converting our existing workforce to the mobile device paradigm.  We discovered that a noticeable percentage of our pilots simply did not use smart devices. If I had to place a number on it, I would say initially, about sixty percent of our pilots were very comfortable with the iPad and the remaining forty comprised a range of acceptance from a positive learning attitude to a ‘when is the deadline to have this done’ response. Our single biggest headache was our initial decision to utilize a complex password on the device. Combined with company web passwords, network IDs and of course an Apple ID it became a bit of a challenge for our pilots.

The FAA mandated parallel run time was an important transition time for Alaska as it allowed us to ease into this new way to manage our information. This is also one of the reasons we continue to use, for now, pdf formatted manuals as they provide familiarity to our pilots. As we began to speak the language of the iPad, allowing personalization aided us in embedding this technology in the DNA of our pilots. We will undergo a similar parallel run time again as we add aeronautical charts to our iPads over the remainder of 2012. Now the emphasis will shift from reading device skills to the ability to efficiently switch between device applications and manage charts. Our newly hired pilots are immersed from day one with the iPad, never receiving a traditional paper manual set. We also find that the newer generation of pilots we hire reflect the newer generation outside our industry where a smartphone or iPad is very familiar. One of our college interns recently visited a new hire class when iPads were issued and upon seeing our program was surprised that we actually had to train pilots to use an iPad. Times do change and if we are honest with ourselves, we must acknowledge this is an on-going conversation.

Our user response has also been positively impacted by our Training Department’s adoption of an HTML distance learning program by CourseMill.  This added another critical element to the iPad immersion. Distance training could be browser friendly from any platform and since they optimized it for the iPad screen it became an option for our pilots with sufficient time on the road to take recurrent training courses. The door was also opened for users to sync out or download specialized review courses from a training web page. We will use this type of training to measure our Jeppesen application proficiency in preparation to finally drop our paper charts.

As Alaska continues to move forward into the mobile device world other divisions besides Flight Operations are making plans to utilize tablet devices to improve our business. Human Resources used iPads in training classes and Maintenance has a test program running in Hawaii that utilizes iPads to enable plane-side reference to needed documents. Our experience has been a good one even though there has been a tremendous amount of work by many individuals, not to forget the end user, our pilots.

Probably the best indication of growing success is to hear a pilot comment how they can finally find answers to questions they needed to know or were just curious about or hear a field trial pilot comment on how electronic chart management is so superior to paper. We still have work to do to obtain use of the airport moving map feature on the Jeppesen application and permission to connect to our onboard Wi-Fi for weather updates, but the end is in sight with a positive regulatory outlook. Flight paperwork is also within reach if we can creatively conjure up cost effective internet access at all stations. Alaska’s Chief Operating Officer reminded me on one occasion that change is hard. I believe I could add that the rewards are well worth it if we are all up to the challeng
e.  

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