In an industry filled with massive machines, the smallest one is arguably having the biggest impact.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

In an industry filled with massive machines, the smallest one is arguably having the biggest impact.

Behind the glamor of traveling and visiting exotic foreign lands, piloting a plane actually involves many uneventful and mundane tasks like keeping track of flying hours, applying for visas, updating flight manuals, and taking notes of weather, airports, and even minor defects on the plane. Thankfully, the iPad is changing all of this. 

One of the first airlines to turn to Apple’s tablet to streamline operations was Delta and United. In 2011, the two American airlines pioneered the way by issuing iPads to their pilots to replace their weight manual, logbooks, and flight charts, which typically came in what is known as ‘flight bags’ and could weigh as much as 18kg. The iPad, on the other hand, was well less than a kilogram - great weight savings, then. But more important than weight savings is that since the manuals are digitized, pilots can look them up more quickly. In addition, with all of the world’s flight charts loaded into the iPad, you never have to worry about not having the right charts with you. Since 2011, many other airlines and even private pilots have turned to the iPad to replace their manuals and charts. 

While Delta and United were the pioneers, Singapore Airlines, on the other hand, has taken the iPad beyond just manuals and charts and has even gone to the trouble of developing custom apps for it. The apps, in question, are called FlyNow and Roster. 

FlyNow shows upcoming flights and other relevant details like the flight plan, fueling, the weather, and where the plane is parked. FlyNow also allows pilots to proceed with their post-flight reports which used to be done on pen and paper. This, according to Captain Raj Kumar, deputy chief pilot, B777, Flight Operations Division, whom I spent a morning with learning about how Singapore Airlines deploys the iPad, frees up pilots’ time and allows them to get home or to a hotel earlier. Of course, all of this is synced with Singapore Airline’s backend servers so that all the information is updated. 

Roster, on the other hand, as its name suggests, lets pilots know what their schedules are like with information like when and where are they flying, when is their off days, and so on. It also allows them to share their schedule with family members and see the rosters of other pilots. Finally, Roster keeps track of their flying hours - pilots can only fly 100 hours a month - and their passport, visas, and license expiration dates. Like FlyNow, all of Roster is synced with Singapore Airline’s backend servers. 

Beyond FlyNow and Roster, the iPad is also an invaluable tool for calculations. Contrary to popular belief, planes do not operate on maximum thrust during take-off. Instead, the appropriate amount is carefully calculated using an unspeakably complicated formula that takes into account weather conditions and load so that the engines are not taxed unnecessarily and made to work too hard - overworking engines shortens servicing intervals and increases costs. The crucial thing, however, is this: the iPad took mere minutes to calculate whereas the plane’s onboard computer - an old Intel processor from over 10 years ago - was so slow that even after 15 minutes it wasn’t done. 

The problem is that equipment needs to be tested and certified for the rigors of flying before they can go into planes and that takes time. For processors, this means they are no longer cutting-edge by the time they are put into service. Additionally, retrofitting planes with newer processors is a costly and time- consuming affair as it requires further testing and certification. The iPad is, therefore, an elegant solution to the problem as it is easier, quicker, and cheaper to certify for the job. 

To maximize the iPad’s capabilities, Singapore Airlines has further enhancements planned such as adding charging points to the cockpits and ensuring pilots have secure access to the Internet during flights so that they can get the most up to date information. 

Singapore Airlines are not the only ones embracing the iPad. British Airways currently employs the iPad is almost all aspects of its operations and has developed over 40 apps for its own use. For example, turnaround managers use an app called iLoad to keep track of baggage and real-time plane loads. Cabin crew, on the other hand, use the Passenger Information List app to stay up-to- date on passengers, including their destination, connecting flight statuses, special meal requirements, and so on. The crew can even make special notes so that staff on the return flight can take note. So if a couple is on their honeymoon, the return crew can ask if they had a good time. It might not seem much but it is these little things that elevate a good airline to an excellent one. 

Following the success of Singapore Airlines and British Airways, other airlines are also exploring how the iPad can be beneficial to their operations. Surprising, then, that the humble iPad could have such a big impact on the way we fly. 

One of the first airlines to turn to Apple’s tablet to streamline operations was Delta and United.