by Stephanie Overby

Aviation Technology: Airplane Flight Decks Go Paperless

Nov 01, 20062 mins

Anyone who’s visited a commercial airplane cockpit will tell you there’s no lack of electronics on the flight deck. But there’s usually a whole lot of paper in there, too. That 77-pound black briefcase you saw the pilot lug up the gangway didn’t contain the copy of War and Peace he intends to read over Omaha: It’s stuffed with navigational charts, weight and balance data, and operating manuals.

Some airlines are replacing many of these paper-based processes with electronic flight bag (EFB) technology. JetBlue made a splash in 2000 when it equipped its pilots and first officers with laptops to access electronic flight manuals and make preflight load and balance calculations that it said would not only reduce the airline’s printing costs but also save 4,800 man-hours a year.

“The typical airline is operating hundreds, if not thousands, of flights a day. That’s a lot of paper, so there’s a definite cost and environmental benefit to the technology,” says Henry Harteveldt, vice president of travel research for Forrester. “There’s also immediacy,” so pilots always have updated data, he says. FedEx has used EFBs since 1991, but most commercial airlines couldn’t justify the technology due to implementation costs and communications infrastructure challenges. Today, more passenger airlines are getting on board.

JetBlue’s laptops, considered Class 1 EFBs by the Federal Aviation Administration, are just like yours—they have to be stowed at times. Virgin America (see “Cheap Frills,” Page 60) plans to take off next year with Class 2 EFBs, which mount in the cockpit of its Airbus A320s, for use at any altitude. The Class 2 option will be less costly long-term than equipping every pilot with his own laptop, says Virgin America’s VP and chief pilot, Joe Houghton, and will let pilots access navigational charts in flight.

The ultimate goal is a nearly paperless flight deck except for one checklist. Houghton says that will increase efficiency, reduce costs and raise the quality of life for pilots—they’ll have a free hand to carry a change of clothes for dinner or a good book.