Here's Why I'm Not Impressed by Alaska Airlines' iPad Rollout

Here's Why I'm Not Impressed by Alaska Airlines' iPad Rollout

Summary: It's a tale of two iPad rollouts for use by airplane pilots. But while the U.S. Marine Corps is using the iPad in an impressive, mission-critical way, Alaska Airlines' deployment is much more limited.


I love Alaska Airlines. Good service, great prices, and the best frequent-flyer/mileage program in the biz (only wish they flew to more places). But recent news about Alaska's iPad deployment left me distinctly underwhelmed.

According to various headlines, Alaska is the first airline to get approval from the FAA to replace its required on-board 25-pound flight manual with an iPad.

400 MB worth of documents will be stored as a PDF on the iPads that pilots will access via a $4.99 app called GoodReader.

All of Alaska's 1,400 pilots will be using the iPads by the middle of June.

I totally get the convenience of Alaska being able to electronically update the flight manual documents from a single central location, rather than the torturous process of manually replacing individual pages. As well as the space they'll save in those cramped cockpits. And the 2.4 million pieces of paper they hope to eventually save.

But some of the other rationale for ROI were suspect: fuel savings (from 25 pounds, really?!), and "fewer back and muscle injuries caused by pilots carrying flight bags" (now we're really straining (pun intended).

Also, due to FAA rules about electronic devices, pilots won't be able to use the iPad during the takeoff and landing phases.

So, in summary: a tablet computer many times more powerful than the mainframes that sent astronauts to the moon has become a glorified e-book reader for flight manuals that pilots cannot even use during the most accident-prone (and hence, most mission-critical) parts of the flight.

"Do you think anyone will notice if I catch up on my vampire novels?"

That doesn't sound like enterprise mobility to me; more like 'enterprise immobility'.

Alaska does say it wants to move its paper maps to the iPad, too. That's something that the U.S. Marine Corps is already doing with iPads in Afghanistan. According to a report:

In Afghanistan, identifying compounds and landmarks from the air can be difficult. To eliminate guesswork and better coordinate missions with international ground forces, USMC pilots arm themselves with a plethora of maps of the region. Prior to digitization, paper charts and grids would fill cramped cockpits and require additional training and attention to read correctly. The iPad saves space and allows pilots to search for locations with a few quick taps of their fingers, making it significantly easier for aviators to identify compounds and quickly offer air support.

"It's a game changer," Capt. John Belsha told The Shephard Group. "It's all about sharing situational awareness and using the iPad is much better than using a paper chart."

Now that's a truly interactive app, the kind at which the iPad and other tablets excel.

Now if only Alaska and the FAA can figure out a solution so that pilots would actually be able use those map-enabled iPads during takeoffs and landings.

Call me whelmed when both of those things come to pass.

Update: I got the following seemingly-authentic comment from a reader at my Forbes blog going by the name 'srmalaska'. He makes some very good points, rebutting me and also some of the below commentators:

As a pilot for Alaska Airlines I can tell you that we are working to get approval to use the iPAD for every phase of flight. Since safety is playing a huge role regarding the use of the iPAD it is going to take a lot of training to get pilots comfortable using the device during critical phases of flight. The FAA allows electronic devices called Electronic Flight Bags (EFB) to be used during all phases of flight. The iPad has not received the appropriate certification of EFB to be used during take off and landing, but it will in the near future.

Regarding a reduction in injuries by reducing weight: Our flight bags are closer to 50 lbs when you add in Approach Plates, Flashlights, Headsets, Extra Batteries etc… Most of the pilot related OJI’s occur while moving the flight back in our “cramped cockpits” We are forced to use back muscles while moving the bag around so yes, 25 lbs is a significant reduction in weight for us.

Fuels savings by reducing weight is significant when you include the two pilot bags (50lbs), Cockpit Manuals (25lbs), and Flight Attendant Manuals ( 4 x 25lbs) that the iPAD will eventually replace. 175 lbs is the weight of a person. The added weight of 1 person does add to our fuel burn, especially on flights 5 hrs or more to Hawaii. Fuel savings alone will save the airlines many thousands of dollars per year.

The benefits of using the iPAD continue to add up for us we become more familiar with all it’s capabilities. For those of us running the airline, we can appreciate the benefits better than those in the back of the aircraft.


Is Sybase a software vendor or...book publisher? I ask that tongue-in-cheek question because I have three bits of news related to recent industry publications.

1) The Enterprise Mobility Guide 2011 (edited by yours truly) is now available as an eBook for tablet and smartphone.

While we already had a PDF version of the guide, this is our first fully mobile version of the document, compliant with the ePub standard. That means the layout automatically changes to the size of the screen and/or fonts, or if you rotate your tablet or smartphone 90 degrees.

iPhone and iPad users can download the eBook straight from Apple's iBooks store, while everyone else (Sony Reader, Barnes & Noble Nook, even those using ePub readers on their PC) can get it here.

(Hope touting our new eBook doesn't sound too hypocritical after I spent 400 words poking fun at Alaska for theirs ;) )

2) The Mobile Commerce Guide 2011 is also now available for free. Like the Enterprise Mobility Guide, this is a 190 page tome with thought-provoking pieces from leading industry analysts (Edgar, Dunn & Company, Javelin Strategy + Research, Informa, GSM Association, Juniper Research, Mobile Marketing Association and more), m-commerce players like Mobikash, Western Union, Telefonica, and Sybase executives.

They discuss the latest trends in mobile wallets, how text messages are being used for electronic payments, why Near Field Communications (NFC) is overhyped, and more. mCommerce is where mobility really touches consumers in a deep way, so if you have interest, this guide is for you.

3) Finally, we've also just published print and electronic (PDF and ePub) versions of the Capital Markets Guide 2011. Aimed at the Wall Street crowd, the Cap Markets Guide features a similar mix of analyses from industry experts (Tabb Group, Accenture, Columbia University, Algorithmica Research, Aite Group and more), financial services vendors (Revolution Analytics, BT Global Services, Numerix, Deloitte, Panopticon Software AB, Algo Technologies and more) and Sybase executives.

As the kids say about a certain Japanese toy, gotta collect 'em all!

Topics: ÜberTech, CXO, Hardware, Laptops, Mobility, SAP, Tablets

Eric Lai

About Eric Lai

I have tracked technology for more than 15 years, as an award-winning journalist and now as in-house thought leader on the mobile enterprise for SAP. Follow me here at ÜberMobile as well as my even less-filtered musings on Twitter @ericylai

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  • Think a little more! (It is a BIG deal.)

    Your view is interesting, but perhaps you should look at the QANTAS Airbus A380 "incident" after take-off from Singapore last year. (The 50+ pop-up messages the A380's 'heads-up' system required to be cleared before the pilots could dump fuel and land the damaged plane.) If there had not been extra pilots on-board, that plane would not have landed safely. Further, if the US Airways Airbus A320 had an iPad, the crew might have been 'scrolling' through hundreds of pages (for what? 15 seconds) instead of 'flipping' in 2 seconds to a Water Ditching TAB. Use of these iPads is a big deal -- and could be a safety issue. (Wiki Alaska 261 Jackscrew crash.)
    • RE: Here's Why I'm Not Impressed by Alaska Airlines' iPad Rollout

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  • RE: Here's Why I'm Not Impressed by Alaska Airlines' iPad Rollout

    It seems clear to me that the writer here is either not a pilot or will not be one for long if he thinks that the proper place for a pilots attention during landing or takeoff is buried in the screen of a ipad.<br>Once an aircrew has committed to a takeoff or landing it is required that they continue to operate the aircraft within a relatively narrow set of parameters in order to continue to keep the aircraft in flight. The flight path and fight parameters for both landing and takeoff are highly structured and planned and will require the pilots complete attention.<br>If for instance there is a problem during landing approach, prior to beginning the approach and landing the pilots will have accessed the missed approach procedure for that particular approach at that particular airport and entered it into the flight computer. Then, if during the landing they encounter some sort of issue, they can then fly the missed approach to a holding area and then work the problem and if needed use the ipad to review the aircraft specs.
    As far as using the maps and charts on the ipad, the flight navigation computer has everything needed for landing, takeoff and cruise. In fact, Alaska Airlines has been leading the industry in developing and using equipment to allow landing and takeoff at some of the world?s most difficult airports in horrible weather and terrain conditions.

    I believe that you are misrepresenting what the USMC pilots are talking about? they are using maps and charts on the ipad for ground target identification, something that is not related to piloting the aircraft.

    Welcome to the real world. This game has no pause button and if you crash, you die for real.
  • Are you a pilot?

    I'm just a private pilot, who flys for fun on the weekends with my friends and family. The introduction of the iPad with apps such as GoodReader and ForeFlight have made a SIGNIFICANT impact on my cockpit organization. I can view my IFR plates with ease, glance at the sectional when on long cross country flights, and keep notes at hand with my stylus. I decreased the amount of paper falling off my knees and out of clips by a lot, which also decreases my time that my eyes are inside, when they could be scanning for traffic.

    So until you get up there in a real plane, in real weather conditions, with real consequences, I suggest you keep your uneducated and naive views to yourself. Like another poster, this game has no pause button. Emergencies are taken very seriously.

    PS. EFBs, or electronic flight bags, have been around since the first Sony eBook readers. The iPad is nothing new, just the amazing development that went into some of the apps.
    • RE: Here's Why I'm Not Impressed by Alaska Airlines' iPad Rollout

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  • Dude...you need more hits...

    ...on your blog. Do what Ed Bott does, throw a bunch a Apple related hate/FUD into your article and you will get hundreds of posts.
  • Will be more useful

    It will be a lot more useful when we get more pad systems not on proprietary hardware. That will allow integration and designing hardware specifically for a use like this. The ipad is marketed like a video game machine but systems from more business oriented companies are coming on the market.

    At this point, I would pick the kindle long before an ipad. Battery issues go away.
  • RE: Here's Why I'm Not Impressed by Alaska Airlines' iPad Rollout

    Maybe a more interesting point would be that the FAA still clings to the Luddite notion that an iPad can bring down an airliner simply by using it. Having said that, I wonder where all the terrorists are that are armed with various cellphones bringing those big birds down. I know if I were Boeing, I would make sure my avionics were not affected by said devices, yet here we are, 2011, 'please turn off all electronic devices'. Now I know for a fact that there hasn't been a flight I've been on where someone didn't ignore that command and yet we arrive safely at our destinations. <br><br>I think it is good that the pilots are able to use technology in the cockpit that doesn't date to the middle ages (paper maps). It's about time.