Considering the technical complexity of modern commercial aircraft and the operational complexities of running any airline service, it may seem surprising - especially to anyone steeped in the ways of business and/or operational automation - to consider the level to which a commitment to paper is maintained.
Most of the documentation associated with getting a modern jet off the deck and safely back down again is still based on paper.
There are some very good reasons for this, not least that paper-based operational procedures are still remarkably robust in terms of auditing adherence to procedures that can make the difference between life and death. But automation and online "paperless" operations are now at last starting to creep in to the process.
One company that is pushing to make this happen is a small, newish UK-based outfit, Evoke Systems, which was one of the demo case studies selected by Microsoft at the Vista launch. The company's primary product for now is an Electronic Flight Operations System (EFOS), a hosted, web-based back office system offered to airlines on a subscription basis. But it has a new product in development and due to be launched by the end of this year, that will take some of that back office system onto the flight deck.
This is an Electronic Flight Bag (EFB), which aims to soak up some of the paper that the flight crews have to take on board with them. "Some documents, such as quick reference handbook emergency procedures, will need to remain on paper as that is the most robust form available," Evoke technical director Craig Howard said.
"But is getting information such as flight plans, journey logs, discretion air safety reports and the like that need to be filled in at the end of a flight by the crew. Today, they make their way back to the office in envelopes."
With even smallish airlines flying just a 100 or so sectors a day, that represents a great deal of re-keying work - from hand written information - that has to be completed by back office staff. "And that is before you look at what the cabin crew are doing. They have similar training requirements and information demands, including things like stock control, in-flight incidents such as passenger medical conditions," Howard added.
EFOS is designed to handle the information that passes between back offices and flight crews – flight plans, operational manuals for the airlines, training manuals, aircraft manuals. Traditionally, they have all been paper documents. But here version control has always been a problem. The CAA requires airlines to submit audits of who has got what version of which manual, and the whole process has until now been paper-based and manually operated. This can include pilots having to sign (and sometimes post) forms saying they have read documents.
EFBs are not actually a new idea, and current types fall into three categories – Classes 1, 2 and 3. Class 1 are carry-on devices and not part of the aircraft. Class 2 are mounted in the aircraft and can take a data feed from the avionics, and Class 3 are an integral part of the avionics. The key factor is they are used to run performance management software, advising on issues such as required take-off power, and electronic charts such as taxiways and approach flight paths.
Evoke views EFBs differently from the rest of the industry. It decided the right target was to computerise the documentation and information that pilots carry with them in their traditional flight bags – crew notes, relevant aircraft data, personal journey logs, and flight-specific paperwork. These form the core communications necessary between flight crew and airline back office.