Tablet at 35000 Feet

As I enter the cockpit of an Airbus A380 at London’s Heathrow Airport, it’s clear I’ve stepped into the future. Electronic wizardry, from LCD screens that glow in dim light to foldable keyboards perched above the seats, covers every corner of this space.

But I’ve boarded this plane to see a more common piece of technology — one you might be carrying in your bag right now. It’s the Apple iPad, and it’s completely changing how commercial airline pilots do their jobs.

Saving time, trees and money

Pilots are responsible for much more than maneuvering a plane from one airport to the next; they have to be able to access a constant stream of information and make quick decisions. That’s where tablets like the iPad and the Microsoft Surfacehave become efficient tools. Now, instead of printing critical flight documents like aircraft manuals and charts on paper, airlines store them digitally on a common tablet.

The changes make even longtime pilots like Captain Dave Thomas, who flies A380s for British Airways, turn their heads. “Aircraft have constantly developed during my career — everything always moves on,” he says. “But I’ve never seen anything move us as fast as [the iPad].”


Captain Thomas shows the British Airways Crew Portal app on his iPad.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Also the head of BA’s flight technical and training, Thomas belongs to the internal team at BA that began looking for a way to go digital 10 years ago. Their goal? Find something small and easy to carry, simple to update and thoroughly reliable. The trouble was, they didn’t have a clear idea immediately what the solution would be. But when Apple introduced the first iPad in 2010, Thomas says, it quickly became the answer.


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