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

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!