iPads in the Cockpit

United’s latest announcement of providing its pilots with Apple iPads in place of flight manuals makes a clear statement that even the airlines can find better uses for what traditionally is considered a general-purpose device in a single-purpose machine-to-machine world.

For months the M2M industry has been debating how long it would take before businesses would convert these consumer-facing tablets from being perceived as nothing more than high-tech gadgets into connected devices that serve real-world M2M functions.

While these popular consumer-facing gadgets can serve an M2M function, very few believe that many businesses, let alone United Continental Holdings would begin distributing 11,000 iPads to all United and Continental pilots. In fact, United has plans to equip all of its pilots with the EFB (electronic flight bags) by yearend. All of this comes as United Continental continues to integrate its United Airlines and Continental Airlines, which merged in October.

Candidly, don’t you love this quote, “The paperless flight deck represents the next generation of flying,” said Captain Fred Abbott, United’s senior vice president of flight operations. “The introduction of iPads ensures our pilots have essential and realtime information at their fingertips at all times throughout the flight.”

United execs say, the iPads–which are all preloaded with Jeppesen Mobile FliteDeck–weigh less than 1.5-lbs replacing 38-lbs of paper flight documents including operating manuals, aeronautical navigational charts, flight checklists, and an assortment of other pilot materials.

Learning all of this I was amazed to discover that a conventional flight bag full of paper materials contains an average of 12,000 sheets of paper per pilot. Talk about not being green and wasting fuel. No wonder they have been slapping us with another 30 bucks every time we want to bring a bag on the flight. Somebody has to pay for all that paper. Now the airline says it will save nearly 16 million sheets of paper a year, equivalent to more than 1,900 trees not cut down. Seriously? What’s more, it will save 326,000 gallons of jet fuel a year reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 3,208 metric tons.

I don’t know who figured this out. But this is what we are saying M2M is all about. But let’s do some math here. We are talking about purchasing 11,000 iPads. The retail cost was about $399-$599, but we all know that United scored better than this price; so that means the airlines should recoup its savings based on what they are saying within just a few years, if not much sooner when you talk about green, safety, and overall cost savings. I am not even factoring in the time efficiency of the pilots from having to thumb through pages and pages of documents to access reference materials. Think about it, corporate can now save an inordinate amount of time by making updates instantly to all pilots and ensuring that all pilots are updated at the same time.

United is not alone, one pharmaceutical company using a tablet computer has plans to help clients distribute information to clinical research teams worldwide. As more and more companies discover the benefits of these small devices, general purpose devices will quickly become tools of the trade and might even move into the world of M2M completely, serving a single purpose. Now that’s what we’re talking about.

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