Airlines customers have grown used to taking a range of electronic devices on plane flights and now pilots are being allowed to follow suit as part of their jobs.
US airlines United and Continental have taken the historic decision to abandon the reams of paper manuals that accompany pilots on every flight, replacing them with 11,000 Apple iPads running a special aeronautical app.
By embracing the ‘paperless flight deck’ the airlines reckon they will be able to replace an arm-wrestling 38 pounds (17.2kg) of navigational charts, flight manuals and logbooks with the one iPad tablet per pilot crew, each weighing only 1.5 pounds (680 grams).
The computers will run Mobile FliteDeck from Boeing subsidiary Jeppesen, an application offering “interactive, data-driven enroute navigation information and worldwide geo-referenced terminal charts,” to quote the press release put out by the now-merged airlines.
The company believes that this will save 16 million sheets of paper (12,000 per pilot, per flight), a weight benefit that will conserve 326,000 US gallons of fuel per year across its fleet, equivalent to a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions of 3,208 metric tonnes.
"The paperless flight deck represents the next generation of flying. The introduction of iPads ensures our pilots have essential and real-time information at their fingertips at all times throughout the flight," said United Airlines Captain Fred Abbott.
Pilots will be able to update their flight materials without the need to print paper additions and will no longer have to move around airports hauling large bags.
Despite the spectacular savings claimed, not everyone will be convinced by some aspects of the deal. The calculation for carbon reductions presumably doesn’t take into account those accounted for by 11,000 iPads during their manufacture, nor the fact that they will one day need to be replaced either due to malfunction or obsolescence.
Paper manuals might weigh a lot but it is unlikely to need replacing as often, even with regular updates.
Many pilots started carrying iPad charts as reference materials on flights some time ago, but in February the US Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) announced that it would for the first time allow them to be used as primary materials and not just backups.