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FAA Approves iPad in Cockpit During All Flight Stages (for American Airlines)

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As of today, aviation flight manuals have officially gone high-tech. This week, the New York Times reported that the Federal Aviation Administration has decided to allow pilots on American Airlines flights to use iPads in their cockpits in lieu of the traditionally mandated paper flight manuals. The “iPad exception” applies during all phases of American Airline flights, including takeoff and landing procedures.

Will air ambulance crews some day be afforded the same luxury? It certainly looks that way, although, as is often the case when red tape is involved, FAA approval for devices like iPads during all phases of an air ambulance flight could still be a few years away.

Why did the airline push to replace the traditional paper manuals traditionally stored in the cockpit? Well, one sound reason is that a 1.5 pound iPad replaces roughly 35 pounds of paper, resulting in a considerable fuel cost savings: approximately $1.2 million over the course of a single year (figure from Seattle Pi).

What’s next, chromebooks on cargo choppers?

What about Passengers?

Notably, passengers on American Airlines flights have been excluded from the new FAA exceptions. Airline passengers have traditionally been prohibited from using powered-on electronic devices such as iPads, phones, portable computers, and electronic book readers. However, for many years now, mobile electronic devices tend to come equipped with the aptly-named “airplane mode,” an operating mode intended to switch off wireless signals that could, potentially, interfere with aircraft systems. In fact, if you look in your phone’s settings, you’ll probably see this Airplane Mode toggle listed near the top of the screen for easy access.

Despite the FAA not budging on these precautions as of yet, pilots will now be able to operate iPads in the cockpit, centimeters from sensitive aircraft controls and equipment. However, as of today, the FAA is enforcing a limit of only two approved devices in the cockpit — one for each pilot.

There is some thought that the FAA’s rules regarding electronic devices on planes may be a bit, well… anachronistic. Mobile electronics of today, in general, do not cause nearly the same level of interference with other electronic equipment that past tech devices have. The rules in place requiring passengers to turn off electronic devices in the cockpit now seem to be more of an extreme safety precaution. Admittedly, allowing two iPads or other approved devices to operate within the cockpit is a markedly different situation than allowing each and every passenger on a high-capacity commercial flight to hack away on their own personal iPad, Chromebook, Nook, or Kindle at the same time.

A common reason given for the ban persisting is that these devices need to be switched off so that passengers give their full attention to safety briefings, but it is odd that non-electronic items such as books and other attention-consuming devices are not banned during these flight stages as well. In the Air Ambulance Weekly editor’s opinion, even with airplane mode existing as a standard feature on personal electronics, it would likely be a nightmare, initially, for airlines to deal with full planes trying to use their devices during takeoff and landing with a high potential for stragglers who either don’t know how to enable the mode or, for whatever reason, are not inclined to do so even if it affects their own safety during the flight. Of course, times change, and this problem could surely be worked out between the FAA, airlines, and mobile electronics manufacturers over the course of a few years.

(Editor’s Note: It’s worth noting that this problem, very much present on commercial flights, would likely be much easier to monitor on an air ambulance — even with all the other concerns — due to the tight crew of professionals/low number of bodies aboard the aircraft.)

Testing Devices on Flights

The FAA informed the New York Times that they have thoroughly tested a spectrum of electronic devices proposed to replace paper navigation charts and manuals. A representative from American Airlines told the newspaper that AA has spent months and months testing Apple’s iPad devices (both generations) in the cockpit to ensure that they do not cause interference with flight equipment in any way.

The iPad’s internal systems make use of multiple types of wireless communication protocols, including WiFi, 3G, and Bluetooth. American Airlines’ own testing has shown that when these functions are switched off, there are no issues with avionics interference.

American Airlines will be the first airline in the world to be fully approved for iPad use during every phase of flight. The first of these flights will begin today.

Ironically, mere days ago, the airline made other headlines when it removed Alec Baldwin from a flight for continuing to play a Scrabble-type game on his iPhone while the plane sat parked at the gate.

Questions for the Future

Will other airlines follow AA’s suit? What about air ambulances? Who knows what the future may hold as paper manuals exit the aircraft and are supplanted with their fully-digitized counterparts? Would FAA approval of mobile electronics during all phases of air ambulance flights create a more streamlined situation as air medical crewmembers increasingly carry reference texts and apps on their iPhones? In a certain light, it almost seems that it would be less of a stretch for the FAA to extend the iPad exception rule to air ambulances, which carry only a small crew of air medical professionals in addition to the patient(s) they are caring for, as opposed to allowing passengers to use them during all phases of general commercial flights (creating the potential for hundreds of hand-held devices operating at once).

On the other hand, with “archaic” paper manuals absent from the cockpit, what is the probability of a device malfunctioning during a critical moment? Does the time saved referencing information in a digital version of a large flight manual versus flipping through roughly 35 pounds of paper outweigh the potential for a helpless, anomalous situation: a system freeze at the worst possible time? We’ve all experienced or seen the frustration that wells up in people when it takes a smartphone an extra couple seconds to load an app. Now, imagine that same delay during a dangerous aircraft situation that requires consultation of the manual.

What do you think about today’s news of American Airlines replacing the paper flight manuals with electronic versions? What about the potential uses for these devices as reference materials on air medical transports? Should a paper “hard copy” of the manual be kept on-board an aircraft in addition to the electronic manual, just in case? Air Ambulance Weekly wants to know your thoughts — please leave your comments below.

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