The paper airplane is about to make its descent. Though flight was one of the great technological advances of the past century, cockpits have lagged in the computer age because no one has been able to transfer the expensive paperwork in a pilot's routine to an automated and foolproof system. Rigorous maintenance checks and the need for well-established procedures and audit trails have made cockpits one of the most paper-intensive environments in the world.
But that's beginning to change as aircraft manufacturers and airlines have started to equip pilots with LAN-connected laptops as part of an effort to tame the paper tiger and help pilots spend more time focusing on their flights and less time dealing with administrative work.
For its part, The Boeing Co. is looking to save a few trees during the next year as it rolls out what it calls an electronic flight bag. This includes providing pilots with network-connected laptops that allow them to perform the calculations they need to do their jobs, such as takeoff speed, weight and balance.
"We've always wanted to do this," says Rick Blank, Boeing's director of cockpit information systems. "But it's not as simple as writing a program for a laptop. It takes multiple wireless devices, LANs and a fair amount of systems integration work."
The Boeing system is in prototype, but future releases will provide aeronautical charts and weather information. Chuck Albright, Boeing's program manager for crew information services, notes that pilots will be able to use a simple overlay map on their laptops rather than having to thumb through pages of maps and charts they normally use in flight.
Yet the biggest paper beasts in any cockpit are the pilot's manuals. The required manuals for a Boeing 777 weigh 77 pounds. Add flight-specific documents and charts, and you can understand why Boeing builds storage compartments for its manuals into its already space-challenged cockpits.
In addition, airplane manufacturers and airlines release constant updates to those manuals, which require pilots to constantly swap out pages in their binders.
One new airline, JetBlue Airways, decided not to join the paper chase. When JetBlue debuted in 1999, it did so with its pilots fully equipped with laptops.
"It's nice we don't have to kill half a forest to go fly," says Al Spain, a pilot and vice president of operations at JetBlue. Instead, all of the manuals for JetBlue's Airbus A320 aircraft are loaded onto PCs from Dell Computer.
Most airlines run separate load-balance departments to do just the computations related to each flight. That's something JetBlue pilots can now do by themselves. JetBlue's laptops have also delivered a side benefit: additional customer service.
"We've had pilots go to the boarding gates and bring up the real-time maps and weather information for [passengers] when there's a delay," Spain said. "Then they can watch [the plane] on the flight tracker."
Capt. Bob Brown, safety committee chairman for the Independent Pilots Association, which represents the fliers at UPS Air Cargo, called JetBlue's current setup something "we eagerly await in this business."
"The top-of-the-line small, corporate airplane is absolutely light-years ahead of where we are in terms of technology," says Brown, who cites cost as the primary barrier to industrywide change.
But the technology that's probably the most critical in helping airlines kick the paper habit might be the wireless LAN. Armstrong says he envisions pilots and maintenance crews being able to send information to one another electronically. Yet that would require wireless LANs at every airport. "The aircraft would essentially become a node hooking up to the system at the airport," he says.
Spain says that while JetBlue is working in that direction, it's an effort "that's going to require a lot of coordination between the airports and the air carriers."
Brown says big airlines like American Airlines and UAL could have a nationwide system in place within three years. But Henry Harteveldt, a travel analyst at Forrester Research, warns that there are significant cultural issues for airlines to tackle before that can happen.
"Airplanes are extremely complex pieces of machinery, and safety is a paramount concern, and there's a certain comfort level with the status quo," says Harteveldt. "This is going to require massive retraining once they get the technology in place."