EFB Special Section: Airlines Outline EFB Benefits

By David Hughes | June 1, 2009
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Continental Airlines, Virgin America and Miami Air have all selected Class 2 electronic flight bag (EFB) systems for different reasons. But the benefit of a growing list of software applications makes it likely that in the future other airlines will have an easier time making a business case for equipping their fleets with EFBs.

One issue driving recent interest in Class 2 EFBs is FAA’s decision in 2008 to approve the use of airport moving map (AMM) software on Class 2 systems. Previously, the AMM application could only be used on Class 3 systems. FAA is even subsidizing some airlines to install Class 2 EFBs with AMM on a limited fleet of aircraft to provide data on how AMM reduces the risk of runway incursions.

Goodrich is supplying its Class 3 "Smart Display" EFB system for US Airways and Piedmont Airlines under FAA’s Capstone 3 program to demonstrate improved pilot situational awareness. US Airways will equip 40 Airbus A320s and A330s; Piedmont will equip 20 Bombardier Dash 8s.

"A business case for EFBs exists right now with all the different applications you can do, from tech logs and charts to moving map," said Jim Schmitz, Goodrich director of business development. "Now, with the ability to bring ADS-B and NextGen functionality into a low-cost display in the cockpit, you can realize some of the benefits from ADS-B In now, where you can show other traffic on the display and also use that for in-trail procedures [and] merging and spacing."

Continental recently became the first airline to begin revenue service with Jeppesen’s AMM software on the navAero t-Bag C22 Class 2 EFB on a Boeing 757. After the first revenue flight Feb. 26, Continental began equipping its 757s and 767s with Class 2 EFBs, according to Mitch Scott, manager of navigation for Continental flight operations. Continental also was in the process of retrofitting 20 Boeing 777s with Class 3 EFBs manufactured by Astronautics Corporation of America. The airline chose the Boeing EFB because it also has 787s on order and the same system is standard equipment on the new aircraft.

Continental has been experimenting with EFB use since 2000. After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the airline equipped one 777 with an EFB to display video from surveillance cameras mounted in the cabin. That EFB also displayed charts and documents.

Following that flight trial, Continental conducted three years of simulation tests with the help of Jeppesen. "We didn’t just study the EFB hardware, we studied what challenges (software) applications bring with them," Scott said. But he said other airlines interested in installing EFBs should be able to move more quickly now that a lot of development work has been completed by Continental and other carriers.

Pilots like using the electronic charts and moving map. The AMM application has always been something Continental pilots wanted on the flight deck due to its safety benefits, Scott said.

Continental 757s and 767s will also have electronic documents initially and other applications are in development such as weather briefing and flight planning capability. The airline plans to complete tests on the ground and then "slowly migrate those applications to EFBs over time," Scott said.

None of the software applications constitute a "silver bullet" that by itself persuaded Continental to equip with EFBs. But as the amount of EFB applications available on the market grows, the business case for other airlines to install EFBs will "get better and better," Scott said.

Compared to Continental, Virgin America is a small, start-up airline. It has a slightly different mix of EFB software applications and says one of them is really critical for producing cost savings. "Whether other carriers (evaluating EFBs) draw the same conclusion is up to them," said Joe Houghton, vice president of Virgin America’s operations control center.

As a new carrier, Virgin America had the luxury of starting with a blank slate in terms of deciding on its approach to EFBs. The carrier operates a fleet of 10 Airbus A319s and 18 A320s in domestic U.S. service. But the thing to remember is that Virgin America is a low-cost carrier. Rather than being a legacy carrier trying to cut costs, it tried to avoid costs from the start.

"The route to go was a Class 2 EFB because it has almost all of the functionality you want at a significantly lower price" than a Class 3 EFB, said Houghton. Like the other carriers that agreed to talk about fleet equipage for this article, Virgin America selected navAero Class 2 EFBs. Each cockpit has a 10.4-inch touchscreen EFB display for the pilot and first officer mounted on the side window. Virgin America was the first carrier to have navAero Class 2 systems installed on the A320 family of aircraft, Houghton said.

Virgin America chose Jeppesen’s electronic charts, a software application named "Performance Pro" to perform weight and balance and runway analysis, and an in-house application called "e-pubs" for aircraft manuals. Performance Pro is a product developed by Navtech Inc., of Waterloo, Ontario, Canada. "We helped Navtech develop the product," said Houghton.

One of the nice features of the Jeppesen electronic charts on the touchscreen display is the capability to zoom in on an area of interest while taxiing or in the air just by touching the screen, Houghton said.

Using Jeppesen electronic charts also has helped pilot "quality of life" because pilots no longer have to drag around a 77-pound chart case, Houghton said. This also reduces weight in the cockpit.

"We don’t manage a lot of paper, don’t print and distribute it and don’t manage out-of-date paper," Houghton said. "And we don’t get fined for having out-of-date paper."

This reduction in paper, he said, is the primary reason to have an EFB aboard. In the past, pilots updated Jeppesen paper charts when they could find the time, meaning they were not up-to-date for every flight.

Now that pilots have the ability to electronically search for the information they need, they are four times more likely to look for it than they were to sort through paper manuals, according to research conducted by Virgin America. Some of the key documents loaded in the EFB are the pilot handbook, flight operations manual and the minimum equipment list. Each pilot has all these documents and more available at his or her fingertips with a touchscreen rather than having to dig for paper manuals in map cases.

The runway performance tool also is helpful. When a Virgin America aircraft is in a line of aircraft waiting for takeoff and the tower calls to ask if the crew can accept an intersection takeoff with a shorter takeoff run, it takes about half a minute for the pilots to run the new performance case through the EFB.

When researching EFBs, Virgin America found it would be very expensive to hire outside experts to help so they took the engineering design in-house as a "do-it-yourself" project. To make the decision to go ahead with EFBs, first the pilots had to convince themselves there was a business case. They had to sell it to senior management next and finally persuade the board of directors. Once the system became operational, it took only a year to avoid enough expenses to pay for the system, Houghton said.

At Miami Air, a charter carrier that has equipped seven 737-800s with navAero Class 2 EFBs, the payback will take more like three years, according to Chief Pilot John Passwater. The airline got its start serving the charter needs of cruise lines but now its biggest customer is the U.S. government.

Miami Air uses its 737-800s on overseas U.S. government charters to carry troops to theaters of operation. The carrier also planned to equip two 737-400s it operates in North America with navAero EFBs once a supplemental type certificate is obtained.

Passwater said one of the factors that made it easy to persuade airline management to buy EFBs was that all of the managers fly. Since the managers had to update their own set of paper charts with new pages, it made it easier to make the point of how this would improve quality of life for pilots.

The biggest benefit of the EFB for Miami Air is the ability to "optimize every takeoff" and make reduced thrust takeoffs almost all the time, operating the engines on the 737 like they are rated at 22,000 pounds of thrust instead of 26,000 pounds.

"These CFM engines come off the shelf from GE at more than $10 million each, so if you can extend [engine life] by 5-to-10 percent, that’s big dollars," said Passwater.

Miami Air was working on adding an AMM application. But it doesn’t have enough aircraft to be included in FAA’s Capstone 3 project, which is subsidizing airline use of airport moving maps.

Miami Air also uses an Iridium satcom link and plans to modify that from voice-only to voice and data so the EFB can send messages to the ground such as engine monitoring reports, "out, off, on, in" departure and arrival messages and other things. Other carriers do this over VHF using ACARS. However, Miami Air flies to so many remote airports that its aircraft are often outside the range of VHF receivers on the ground.

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