United Airlines is joining the “paperless flight deck” revolution, announcing Tuesday that it is distributing 11,000 iPads to United and Continental pilots to replace bulky paper navigation charts in the cockpit.
The announcement gives further momentum to a movement underway since spring, when the Federal Aviation Administration authorized pilots to use iPads running the Jeppesen Mobile TC navigation app instead of paper maps. FAA spokesman Les Dorr told Macworld on Tuesday that about a dozen airlines—including, perhaps most famously, Alaska Airlines—have made the switch to iPad-based charts.
United and Continental will use a different app—the new Jeppesen Mobile FD application. United said that pilots typically carry 12,000 sheets of paper to chart their course during flights; the introduction of the iPad should save the airline 16 million sheets of paper and, thanks to the reduction in weight, 326,000 gallons of jet fuel per year.
The fact that an airline cockpit has required so much paper might be surprising when you consider how mechanized most flights are these days, with computers in control of most in-flight duties. “About 75 to 80 percent of a flight is done using the autopilot, in conjunction with the flight management system,” Kevin Hiatt, executive vice president of the Flight Safety Foundation, told AOL Travel last year.
iPads won’t completely eliminate paper charts from the cockpit, the FAA’s Dorr said: Like passengers, pilots aren’t allowed to use electronic devices below 10,000 feet—and that includes the iPad. And the iPad charts will only guide pilots while their planes are within a 50-mile radius of their originating and destination airports, he said. The charts for the in-route portion of a flight are still too complex to be displayed well on any electronic device, Dorr said.
While iPads are increasingly used in the workplace, they’re also well-known for their entertainment value—providing access to movies, games, and videos. But Dorr said there’s little risk that pilots will be distracted by an in-flight game of Angry Birds.
“Every airline will have, probably spelled out in detail, what they can or can’t do,” he told Macworld. “We issued a reminder last April that any cockpit distraction can be a safety risk—and that includes electronic devices. We would say that would be a cockpit distraction.”
Dorr added: “We really don’t expect that to happen. I don’t believe, in the evaluations we’ve seen, that’s been an issue at all. Most pilots are dedicated professionals.”
Dorr said the FAA is giving airlines an initial six-month period to evaluate the use of iPads in the cockpit, after which permanent authorization is expected to be granted.