Electronic flight bags set to deliver on their promise

By Kieran Daly

As with so many new technologies, the early adopters of electronic flight bags will not necessarily be its biggest beneficiaries, but the concept finally looks poised to deliver far greater benefits than initially promised.

What is now apparent is that the so-called "paperless cockpit" concept that initially drove development is only one element in a range of business advantages that, in well-executed projects, can reverberate through an airline.

In short, the true potential of the EFB, far from being yet another clever box in the cockpit, is that it can represent the critical data gateway into and out of the aircraft that has been the missing link in airline information systems for decades.

In principle at least these hugely expensive physical assets can finally become nodes on the company's IT networks just like an office, BlackBerry-equipped employee, or check-in desk with all the myriad cost and efficiency gains that are almost routine today.

Aircraft Management Technologies
© Lufthansa Systems AG

Joe McGoldrick, chief executive of Malahide, Ireland-based Aircraft Management Technologies (AMT), says: "Airlines today are paper based. The aircraft are $100 million assets and everything around them is paper-based, with data-entry clerks transcribing the data and entering it into the system. The whole process around the aircraft has never been fixed.

"So it is the whole question of the connected aircraft and the aircraft becoming a node on the network. That leaves tremendous opportunity for streamlining the operation."

That transition in the perception of EFBs from technical exotica to management tools leads major vendors in the field to believe they are on the brink of a wave of procurement.

Most of that wave, it now seems clear, will consist of retrofit sales of Class 2 EFBs - the highly capable devices that can be docked with the aircraft and used in all flight-phases, sitting between the more basic Class 1 devices, which are essentially ruggedised laptop computers, and the high-end Class 3 integrated devices, which are predominantly the preserve of new-build widebodies.

And the second defining feature of the market is that the robust integration of the aircraft with the airline's ground information systems is critical if the potential of the EFB is to be unleashed - implying well-thought-out communications links and proper analysis of the required data flows. The result can be not just more efficient - and safer - day-to-day tactical operations, but the generation of real-time business intelligence for senior executives.

Aircraft Management Technologies
© Lufthansa Systems AG

The possible applications are enormous: they range from the transfer to the aircraft of electronic charts, loadsheets and route manuals for consultation in flight, to the downloading of precise block times, crew duty hours, fuel and other service purchases, and, of great importance, technical fault reporting.

The early EFB-driver of saving pilots from having to carry weighty charts and other flight documentation around remains significant on cost and health grounds - particularly in the USA, where historically aircrew have held their own set of charts.

Also in the USA, the Federal Aviation Administration is urging carriers to consider EFBs to display own-position data using automatic dependent surveillance - broadcast to attack the perennial problem of runway incursions.

Dan Pendergast, senior director airline programmes of Arinc, which runs its airline EFB activity under the umbrella of the Adari joint venture with Aeronautical Data Communications Corporation (ADCC) of China, says: "We are pretty much hardware and application agnostic. We work closely with the airline to assess what they want and we can serve as an integrator for both hardware and software and, if you like for installation.

"It is absolutely essential that if you are going to deploy it on the aircraft it is fully integrated into the information process and standardised across the fleet."

The company, which is working on a potential Class 2 EFB programme with Cathay Pacific on at least its Boeing 777 fleet, offers program management software that Pendergast likens to Windows in its function, and content delivery management using its experience in aircraft-ground communications.

Like Arinc, AMT begins work at an airline by examining its existing processes and then entering a consulting role to work out how they can be improved and with what benefits.

McGoldrick says "an average airline" can save around $200,000 per aircraft every year, resulting in a payback period of around only 18 months - making EFBs a plausible investment even in hard times. The company portrays its work as an example of lean manufacturing for airlines. It says it has a rigorous model for developing an EFB business case, used for example by Singapore Airlines, which examines more than 300 airline processes for possible improvement.

McGoldrick says a major challenge is breaking down airline departmental silos. He says: "In practice the airline industry is very siloed. For example, the maintenance guys are getting the tech data and it sits in the maintenance silo, and flight operations are generating voyage reports and those go off into the flight ops silo. With an EFB you have all the data effectively coming through a funnel, which is then distributed to the various functional areas. So you have a way now for the first time to see how the aircraft is performing."

Aggregating that data creates another management tool, he says. "Then you can generate business intelligence. All the data comes off and you can generate reports. Today it takes weeks to get any kind of information. Now you have it in quasi-real-time.

"What you cannot do today as an executive in the airline is find one place where you can get a snapshot of the operation today. That is a key requirement for executives and it can be customised as to what you want to see."

Most data, he says, needs only be up- or downloaded on arrival or departure, and can be carried by any one of several links from Gatelink to 3G or Iridium.

Thomson Airways of the UK is using Iridium in current trial work with AMT to implement electronic flight-briefing on two aircraft. Airborne reporting of technical issues to let engineers prepare ahead of arrival, however, can be done with traditional VHF or satellite communications ACARS.

Aircraft Management Technologies
© Aircraft Management Technologies

The data itself can be hosted by the airline, or by AMT if required, or even by a third party. And much of it is synchronised on the ground, over secure web links for example, rather than being transmitted, ensuring that operational documentation is constantly kept updated.

McGoldrick says that typically the project is driven by one department - generally flight operations or engineering - but that once the business case is established, other advantages quickly accrue. "Once you have the framework then you can roll out new applications - the big step is putting in the framework," he says.

A classic example of that now emerging is that an EFB can easily be used to collate the trip data that will be required under forthcoming European emissions trading regulations - a task that all carriers are having to address. "Emissions data can be done with one click. If you have the EFB in place then you get the emissions data for free effectively," he says.

AMT tends to work on Class 2 projects, but McGoldrick is open minded, saying: "The big drawback with Class 1 is that it is not available [for crew use] under 10,000ft [3,000m]. That obviously limits some of the functionality that you can provide, but it can still make sense.

"If the idea is managing voyage logs and recording vendor services or an electronic tech log, or performance calculations with weight and balance, then all that can be provided with a Class 1 solution. That has business benefits."

A Class 1-based contract AMT had with Irish leisure carrier Futura Airways to generate take-off performance calculations let the airline drop some refuelling stops as the calculations were much more accurate than on paper.

McGoldrick notes that the kind of off-the-shelf ruggedised laptop used for Class 1 applications might cost only €2,000 ($2,750) compared with 10 times that for a Class 2 device. "But Class 2 makes a lot of sense by having a docking station," he says.

He concedes that Class 3 has the "big advantage" of being able to interact with the aircraft's integral databus, opening even more advanced applications, but suggests it would be rare that a retrofit case could be made.

Arinc's Pendergast says: "On Class 2 you can get all the traditional applications that you find in Class 3. Also if you integrate into the communications management unit, it can access into health monitoring or engine monitoring and can download that information as well."

Marc Szepan, senior vice-president airline operations solutions at Lufthansa Systems, which is a major supplier to Lufthansa's airline operation and third parties, notably under the Lido brand, broadly agrees, saying: "We see a move in the direction of Class 2 devices. There was a lot of excitement in the market around Class 3 and a good push from the manufacturers but, for an airline, where does the real value come from?"

That shift to Class 2 was the major decision taken by Lufthansa's airline operation 18 months ago for its entire fleet under the EFB Next Generation banner and Szepan says: "We are fairly happy with the decision to pursue that in Lufthansa and it is being borne out in the [third party] marketplace. We are pretty much on track. We had the first validations by our pilot group which gave positive feedback."

Aircraft Management Technologies
© Aircraft Management Technologies


Lufthansa began using Class 1 EFBs more than six years ago and has learned a great deal, but Szepan says that as well as the shift to Class 2, LHS believes there are two other key aspects to the market now. He says: "One of the key drivers is the integration of the ground and cockpit applications. Everybody got very excited about putting a screen in the cockpit and seeing what they could do with that.

"But that has matured and we are finding something that delivers real operational and financial value. We need software and applications tied into the ground-based systems. The ground and cockpit parts of life must be integrated - that is a big trend.

"The second point is that, the more we see, it is not just about clever device engineering and certification, but the key part is the clever and robust combination of software engineering and flight operations.

"We have big expertise in Lufthansa where we can see issues popping up and see crew resource management [CRM] and human factors issues. EFBs haven't been around for too long. But what we do see is a lot of operational and technical maturing in the last year or two."

Szepan puts the case for Class 2 solutions more forcefully than McGoldrick, saying: "One of the key value-drivers for EFB is electronic charts or electronic route manuals. The obvious limitation of Class 1 is that you have to stow it for take-off and landing. So we needed something that would mean we didn't have to do that, and Class 2 allows that during all phases of flight. It is more significant as capex [capital expenditure] but, when you put in electronic charts and take-off performance modules and so on, Class 2 is a no-brainer."

There is a similar consensus among the vendors on the desirability of a standardised fit across all aircraft types in the fleet.

Examples of EFB benefits include:

  • Providing data for crews to generate loadsheet instead of despatchers.
  • Reduction in crew duty time due to the ability for crews to self-brief via intranet in hotels or at home and then update on the aircraft.
  • Recording vendor services in order to check invoices - for example for stairs, ground power and fuel.
  • Electronic tech log - the ability for crews to raise defects in flight and, if equipped, transmit them to engineers at the destination.
  • Ensuring updated manuals have been provided to the entire fleet by tail number.
  • Paperless cockpit: e-charts and route manuals ending the need for pilots to carry their own paper volumes with attendant costs and health risks.

Szepan explains: "[In Lufthsansa] it is standard across the whole fleet - independent of aircraft type and device hardware supplier. We want to make sure that no matter what aircraft type pilots operate they have the same design and interface; it is a human factors issue, a cost of training issue, and a CRM issue.

"And from the ground operations side, operating aircraft from a number of different manufacturers, we only want to run one set of infrastructure. The number of airlines that are single-manufacturer operators is fairly small."

Lufthansa's own programme integrates EFB-installation into the regular maintenance check-cycle. Szepan declines to detail its exact status, conceding that the original plan has had to be modified in the light of market conditions and indicating that the schedule depends considerably on the form of the recovery. "We thought we had a fairly detailed and certain plan about 18 months ago, but things happened in the industry," he observes.

There is a general view that the regulatory authorities have performed well in supporting the implementation of EFBs, although the UK Civil Aviation Authority declines to comment on the subject, saying it is "too early". But the vendors warn airlines not to be complacent.

Szepan says: "These things are not that easy to tackle from a regulatory point of view. There are software engineering and data processing kind of issues. And there is obviously the issue of getting operations approvals."

AMT's McGoldrick adds: "It is important to get the aviation authority on board and let them know what you are doing. We are not that far advanced in terms of the regulatory process."

How the market will evolve in the recession-hit near-term is hard to predict. Arinc's Pendergast says: "Airlines should be looking into the technology and working on their business cases. At some point it has the potential to pay and when the economy is right they should prepare to move forward. Now might not be the time, but who knows a year from now?"

With its strong internal business case the issue is less difficult for Lufthansa, but AMT chairman Aidan Gallagher says his company is working hard to develop a pay-as-you-go model for hosting airline data to mitigate the up-front costs of EFB implementation. He says the company is also developing relationships with major system integrators as its strategic way ahead.

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