Why Air Canada Pilots Love Their iPads

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Captain Doug Morris explains how tablets have simplified flight planning for pilots and gained precious fuel savings.

While on the crew bus heading to Hong Kong International Airport (HKG), I can use my iPad’s Smart Brief app to download the flight plan (about 70 pages) for our return flight to Toronto. This dedicated pilot briefing and weather app allows me to fine-tune flight conditions, pinpoint thunderstorms over Japan and locate jet streams over the Pacific Ocean with great accuracy. Another popular pilot app, Jeppesen, will depict our route, all airport charts – HKG has nearly 80 such charts alone – and even provide weather updates. (As a meteorologist, I can’t get enough weather.)

Now that Internet is available at 35,000 feet, pilots’ tablets are like wireless umbilical cords attaching us to the mother ship, essential gear for our global 24-7 operations. Weather reports update as we fly. Navigation charts are available for every airport in our system plus a ton more. As recently as 2014, all of this existed on paper, and had to be carried onto every flight. At one time, pilots were required to manually amend all charts before each flight pairing, including airports we would never fly to. Now amendments are handled almost instantaneously, with the tap of a button.

July 28, 2020
Flight plan from airport YYZ to LAX on an iPad
My flight to LAX from YYZ. Our weather app shows possible bumps over Nebraska at 30,000 feet. We will flight plan at a higher altitude where it’s deemed smoother.
Jet streams over the United States within a flight plan app on an iPad
My flight to LAX from YYZ. Our weather app shows possible bumps over Nebraska at 30,000 feet. We will flight plan at a higher altitude where it’s deemed smoother.
Flight AC993 Toronto to Mexico City (July 7, 2020). Cloud, lightning strikes, and upper winds are superimposed. Purple line is the routing this morning.

We’ve also got apps for schedules, deicing info, filing of reports, an alarm clock for layover wake-up calls or crew rest times – not to mention the persistent flow of company memos. Air Canada is saving over 57,000 sheets of paper per day by loading flight plans, manuals and aeronautical charts onto iPads. This adds up to a 27-kilogram reduction in weight per flight. Across the entirety of operations, more than 700,000 kilograms of fuel is saved each year, reducing our carbon footprint by 2,205 metric tons annually. All this to say that many pilots are now operating paperless (though I still like to have a paper copy of the first section of the flight plan, at least).

Pre-iPad, a pilot’s flight bag would be laden with these paper navigation maps, airport charts, procedures and memos. Now pilots portage food and snacks (only if it’s not an issue with local customs) and we’ve downsized. Those bulky rectangular pilot bags, sometimes plastered with aviation stickers, are giving way to compact rolling bags or even backpacks. I’m trying to decide whether I even need a second bag – though it does add balance to my roller.

Flight plan from airport YYZ to LHR on an iPad
Yesterday’s flight AC848 (YYZ-LHR). The purple line is the route for the flight. It depicts a weak jet stream (90 knots) over southern Labrador that might cause light bumps for about 10-20 minutes at 35,000 feet (flight level 350). If the pilots fly higher, they will avoid much of it.

Tablet Trivia

  • The service director also carries an iPad detailing passenger loads and needs, plus apps for manuals and procedures, sending cabin snags to maintenance and submitting passenger feedback.

  • One pilot app allows access to ACU (Air Canada University), through which a pilot can enrol in courses on winter operations, polar flights, learn the intricacies of a new aircraft, take required annual recurrent training and submit exams.

  • The Medical Kit app is a mobile first aid reference – it even includes step-by-step instructions on how to deliver a baby.

  • In the case a pilot forgets or misplaces their iPad, flight planning has backups encased in neon covers. These are known as the iPads of Shame.

 

By the Numbers

  • 4,400 Approximate number of new iPads recently sent to Air Canada pilots.

  • 17 The number of apps on a pilot’s iPad that facilitate their job.

  • 57,000+ Number of sheets of paper saved daily by loading all flight plans onto pilots’ iPads.

  • 3 Millions of dollars saved annually on fuel costs, across the Air Canada fleet, by switching from paper to iPad briefing documents.

  • 700,000 Kilograms of fuel saved by using iPads instead of paper flight plans.

  • 2,205 Annual carbon footprint reduction, in metric tons.

Portrait of Air Canada's Captain Doug Morris
Photo: Reynard Li

Doug Morris is an author, meteorologist, instructor and Air Canada captain on the Boeing 787.

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