iPads for pilots take the pain out of prepwork

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Singapore Airline’s Captain Raj Kumar, deputy chief pilot, B777, Flight Operations Division shows how the airline pilots now use the Apple iPad as the ultimate cockpit companion.


Aloysius Low/CNET

Being a pilot may seem glamorous and fun, but there’s a ton of prep and paperwork that goes on behind the scenes.

There’s flying hours to keep track of, visas that may be expiring, minor defects in the next plane to know, who you’re flying with, potential weather problems as well as other administrative tasks that need to be done.

But Singapore Airlines wants to change that for its pilots — and it’s leveraging Apple’s iPad to do so to make the “pilot duty process” easier for its frequent flyers. The airline started looking into this back in 2015, before rolling out iPads loaded with two essential custom apps, FlyNow and Roster. These iPads are secured with Apple’s TouchID, letting them ditch the previously used two-factor authentication dongles pilots had to carry around. That’s on top of the other apps that give pilots detailed weather information and flight charting information.

The custom apps are synced with Singapore Airline’s backend servers, and are designed to by easy to use even for pilots who aren’t tech-savvy. That may sound like an oxymoron given the complex technology used in planes, but apparently it’s necessary.

“Pilots are creatures of habit, and if you don’t have a standard operating procedure, it can be hard for them to learn. Piloting is step based and very regimental,” explains Captain Raj Kumar, deputy chief pilot of the B777 division.

“One of the main things was to make the apps easy to use — we told our pilots that anything yellow is interactive and tappable.”

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The Roster app helps SQ pilots keep track of their schedules easily. 


Singapore Airlines

For Roster, the app is designed as a personal companion for pilots, and provides them with a slew of easily accessible updates. At a glance, a pilot can easily determine which rostered flights are coming up, view the plane type as well as the types of passenger classes.

An important feature is the number of hours flown — the legal limit is 100 hours a month, and pilots used to have to manually track it themselves. The same applies to a visa, such as a US visa. The app will let a pilot know that it’s expiring soon, so they won’t be caught flat-footed and unable to fly to the US, leaving the airline to scramble for a last-minute replacement.

Other features include the option to share upcoming flights with a family member. And users can view the rosters of fellow pilots, making it easier to arrange a meetup with a colleague on off days.

Interestingly, a lot of the information is added by the airline, said Kumar, with no input from the pilot as the airline wants to ensure that accidental typos with wrong dates don’t happen. In the future, Singapore Airlines plan to automatically generate visa request letters for its pilots, to make the application process easier, though this isn’t happening any time soon.

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The custom FlyNow app that gives a pilot all the information he needs for upcoming flights. 


Aloysius Low/CNET

As for FlyNow, the app delivers information such as routing, weather forecasts and fuel load. The iPad can also be used as an calculator for fuel and routes. It’s a lot faster as well, as Kumar told me that computers on the plane tend to user older processors that have been certified by flight authorities, instead of modern chips such as the latest and greatest Intel Core i9-9900k.

As Singapore Airline pilots land and get ready to disembark, the FlyNow app also lets them log in all the required information that previously had to be done on paper, and information logged then gets synced when the iPad is connected to the internet. Kumar told me this is helpful — letting pilots get home or to a hotel earlier, instead of having to work after landing.

Kumar added that there are also many other improvements in the works, such as upgrading older plane cockpits with USB ports to charge the iPads, as well as adding secure onboard connectivity for the iPads to get updated information mid-flight.

Singapore Airlines isn’t the only aviation company that’s tapping on Apple’s iPad for cockpit use — British Airways also rolled out its own version of piloting apps earlier this year. You can bet other airlines aren’t lagging far behind either. All of which leaves just one question: Where are the Android tablets in all of this?

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