If an electrical device is operated in the cockpit, it must be complex, certified and expensive, right? Well, not necessarily. And the inability to think beyond that bias probably has inhibited the widespread use of a convenient, yet relatively inexpensive device, the electronic flight bag (EFB). Dennie Schmitz, senior director-business development at Teledyne Controls, calls this bias the "avionics syndrome."
Its cause is understandable. Think of a new electrical device for the cockpit and you automatically brace for an expensive installation and drawn-out (and also expensive) approval process. But forward-thinking carriers, such as Fed Ex and JetBlue, have found economical ways to swap their heavy leather satchels full of manuals for a lightweight laptop or tablet computer. And most of those operators report that their EFBs have paid for themselves many times over.
Widespread use of EFBs was promoted at a user conference sponsored by Teledyne Controls in late March. Speakers at the event provided a fresh view of these devices and how they can deliver benefits.
Think of EFBs not as a flight operations tool (though they can facilitate flight operations), but rather as a workstation, not unlike a computer on a desk in an office. In other words, it's a business tool. "The aircraft is the airline's most important and most expensive asset; it's the front line of the company's customer connection," said Schmitz at the conference. "Yet, historically, the aircraft has been disconnected from the rest of the company."
"The airlines have extensive communications networks on the ground," he continued. "Wouldn't it make sense to extend the company's information network to its main asset?" Communications between the company network and airplane network could be made through a gatelink or Internet connection or, to be more timely, a satellite data link.
With connectivity, information could be disseminated from the EFB to the appropriate departments throughout the corporate organization for prompt action, if needed. And likewise, such information as weather and load data could be transmitted to the aircraft from the corporation.
The term, electronic flight bag, doesn't accurately describe the device's potential. "You can't justify an EFB for [eliminating] the paper charts alone," said Bob Bouchard, senior adviser at Fed Ex. His company chose to use EFBs, airborne and ground servers, and a gatelink to promptly communicate maintenance problems to its ground crew, who could then make quick repairs and assure fast turnarounds. From data collected over a six-month period, Fed Ex determined that it eliminated, on average, nine delays for every 1,000 departures, according to Bouchard.
JetBlue, too, wanted to shorten turnaround times and chose to use EFBs to communicate, via the Internet, pertinent flight information to the flight crew while they are in their homes or hotel rooms. That way, when they enter the cockpit, they would be ready to fly, according to Brian Uskoski, the carrier's director-operations engineering. "With an EFB, the pilot doesn't have to log a lot of data in his head; he just has to know where to find it," he added.
Uskoski and Bouchard both suggest a "building block" approach to incorporating EFBs. That was how Fed Ex's use of the devices evolved. And, said Uskoski, that's what JetBlue plans--to eventually include full-time connectivity, uplinked weather and E-log books, among other functions.
Although he said Fed Ex "is considering" a dedicated EFB display in future aircraft, Bouchard stresses the benefits of commercially available laptops and tablet computers--devices that need no ARINC standard and can be discarded once they become obsolete. In other words, not Class 3 EFBs, which are considered to be avionics.
The road map for airlines that are considering the introduction of EFBs was made clear at the Teledyne conference: start modestly with just a few applications and commercially available equipment; add new applications when appropriate; and, most of all, avoid the avionics syndrome--or what Uskoski refers to as the "analyze/paralyze" state that prevents some airlines from adopting electronic flight bags.