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Sci-Tech

Tablets at 35,000 feet

From takeoff to landing, commercial airline pilots are using tablets to plan every phase of your flight.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET
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As I enter the cockpit of an Airbus A380 at London's Heathrow Airport, it's clear I've stepped into the future. Electronic wizardry, from LCD screens that glow in dim light to foldable keyboards perched above the seats, covers every corner of this space.

But I've boarded this plane to see a more common piece of technology -- one you might be carrying in your bag right now. It's the Apple iPad, and it's completely changing how commercial airline pilots do their jobs.

Saving time, trees and money

Pilots are responsible for much more than maneuvering a plane from one airport to the next; they have to be able to access a constant stream of information and make quick decisions. That's where tablets like the iPad and the Microsoft Surface have become efficient tools. Now, instead of printing critical flight documents like aircraft manuals and charts on paper, airlines store them digitally on a common tablet.

The changes make even longtime pilots like Captain Dave Thomas, who flies A380s for British Airways, turn their heads. "Aircraft have constantly developed during my career -- everything always moves on," he says. "But I've never seen anything move us as fast as [the iPad]."

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Captain Thomas shows the British Airways Crew Portal app on his iPad.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Also the head of BA's flight technical and training, Thomas belongs to the internal team at BA that began looking for a way to go digital 10 years ago. Their goal? Find something small and easy to carry, simple to update and thoroughly reliable. The trouble was, they didn't have a clear idea immediately what the solution would be. But when Apple introduced the first iPad in 2010, Thomas says, it quickly became the answer.

"The iPad was what we were waiting for," he says. "It ticked all of [our] boxes."

Before BA acquired its first iPads in late 2012, flight crews stored technical manuals for the aircraft in each cockpit. Called "The Library," the binders took up a lot of space in an already cramped area.

Updating paper docs caused problems, too. When BA issued amendments to technical manuals and charts, crews had to swap in the new pages by hand. Besides being a tedious process, you had to be careful or you could wind up with a missing manual page at a critical time. With a tablet, though, wireless software updates could instantly rewrite electronic documents with the changes highlighted. Pilots also could make their own changes in-flight and search for only the information necessary.

Reducing paper saves more than just trees and cockpit space. It also reduces one of the most important commodities airlines use: fuel. All of that paper stored in the cockpit or carried on board could weigh up to 40 pounds, so removing it from the aircraft means airlines have to load less fuel on each flight, saving millions of dollars per year.

From takeoff to landing

As we stand in a BA A380 simulator at Heathrow, Thomas is enthusiastic to show me just how he and BA's 4,000 pilots use the iPads to plan and execute every flight.

A day's work starts with the crew portal app, which contains the passenger and crew manifest, company notices and briefing details about the flight, weather reports, the amount of cargo and fuel on board and the planned route. Separate apps hold charts, technical and training manuals for the aircraft, and airport maps. As each flight ends, crews also use iPads to track fuel use in real time and update refuel orders during a layover.

Though most applications are built by outside developers, BA also designed its own apps. A Beyond the Flight Deck app, for example, allows pilots to create a souvenir certificate for passengers, using the tablet camera to shoot a photo of the person.

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Thomas watches (and laughs) as I pilot an A380 over Hong Kong.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Opportunities...and challenges

Like with any other piece of technology, implementing tablets in the cockpit did create challenges. Though power outlets are readily available in a cockpit, pilots have to keep an iPad charged to access those all-important docs at all times. Crews also need to have a reliable data connection for updates and take care to download them promptly, or charts could be out of date.

Other growing pains weren't as obvious. Flight crews have to position tablets where they're easy to reach from their cockpit seats while not interfering with the view outside. And unlike paper, it's possible for an app or the tablet itself to simply stop working. In April 2015, dozens of American Airlines flights were delayed when the charting app made by Jeppesen, a Colorado-based company that provides many US airlines with electronic charts, did not operate.

Jeppesen later traced the problem to an outdated version of its software. The problem hasn't occurred since then, and it's since implemented a variety of backup procedures. For example, it can quickly distribute PDFs of charts to airlines if electronic versions are temporarily unavailable.

A backup to the backup

Airlines using tablets say they have a variety of backup systems in place, as well. Each pilot carries a tablet -- so if one tablet crashes, someone always has a spare. Documents also can be backed up on an aircraft's computer and read on a cockpit screen.

"Aviation is built on redundancy," says Keith Hagy, director of Engineering & Air Safety for the Air Line Pilots Association. "You always have a backup and a backup to the backup."

Before approving cockpit tablet use in 2011, the Federal Aviation Administration required airlines to demonstrate those redundancies and prove that the devices would, among other things, withstand a rapid depressurization of the cabin and not interfere with the aircraft's systems.

The agency also evaluated the lithium ion batteries inside every tablet to ensure they didn't pose a fire risk. Though the batteries got the green light, Hagy would like to see their reliability improve.

"That's a bit of an issue...making them more reliable and less likely to fail," he says. "And when it does fail, it doesn't overheat and start a fire."

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The A380 cockpit is a tech wonderland.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Into the wild blue future

More uses for tablets in the cockpit are on the way. JetBlue now uses the iPad's GPS feature while on the ground to show a plane's location at an airport. Much as a driver would find his way in an unfamiliar city with Google Maps, a JetBlue pilot could navigate through a new airport on a Jeppesen airport map.

"On a foggy day where you land at an airport you're not familiar with, it's a godsend to have that information," says Chuck Cook, a JetBlue captain and the airline's manager of Fleet Programs and Technology. "You can quickly see where you need to go."

JetBlue isn't stopping there. The airline has petitioned the FAA to use GPS to show a plane's location on electronic charts while in the air. And Cook is hoping to use an iPad's accelerometer to record in-flight turbulence and issue advisories to nearby aircraft. BA is expanding the horizons of tablet use, as well. Eventually, the airline hopes to be able to download data directly from the aircraft onto the tablet for later analysis during maintenance.

For its part, Jeppesen has built new charts with integrated weather reports and apps that offer a streamlined process for logging maintenance issues and more detailed airport maps to better guide pilots from the runway to the terminal.

Greg Jones, Microsoft's industry director for Hospitality & Transportation, says his company is trying to reduce the number of apps a pilot would use, particularly if the airline already uses Windows in the office. "Rather than bouncing from one app to another, [we want] to bring them into a centralized portal," he says. "Then they have all the requirements that they need to do their job at a single instance."

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This 13-page booklet is all the paper a cockpit needs.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Still, a bit of paper

As we leave the simulator, Thomas stops to show one of the last paper-based documents flight crews keep on board. About the size of a cocktail menu, the 13-page Quick Reference Handbook includes standard operational checklists and briefings for emergency procedures.

As I flip through it, it's remarkable to me that in the case of an emergency landing, this little book is all a pilot needs to brief the passengers and the cabin crew. But as JetBlue's Cook tells me, we're now here for a good reason.

"Now that we have digital charts, they're smaller, they have search functionality, and we can know where by tapping a button, and it centers the chart on our location," he says. "It brings a lot of context information to the forefront, and it makes finding the information quicker."

This story appears in the winter 2016 edition of CNET Magazine. For other magazine stories, click here.