Delta Air Lines, Alaska Airlines push for iPads as in-cockpit flight aids

iPad 2Last month, the Federal Aviation Administration put its stamp of approval on Apple’s iPad for in-cockpit use by pilots with the charter airline service Executive Jet Management. It is a significant step, offering pilots the option of using the tablet’s touchscreen interface for pre- and in-flight course charting, a task that has relied upon paper maps since the dawn of air travel.

The Executive Jet Management approval now opens the door for larger commercial airlines to pursue putting the iPad into cockpits, an FAA spokesman told Bloomberg. Such a shift in the air carrier industry would fall in line with Apple’s larger plans for the device, positioning it as a tool for business as well as consumers.

Electronic flight planning solutions are nothing new in commercial airline cockpits; the FAA started approving specialized paper chart-replacing computers for in-flight use almost a decade ago. However, these devices are much heavier and more cumbersome to use than an iPad in the confined space of an airplane cockpit.

The FAA authorization only extends to Executive Jet Management for the time being, though other airlines are looking at the example as a model for making the switch. Alaska Airlines pilots are already testing the Apple device for in-flight use, company spokeswoman Marianne Lindsey said.

Delta Air Lines is also pursuing approval to begin testing iPads “and other tablet devices” next quarter, according to spokeswoman Gina Laughlin. Both airlines — and others, including American Airlines and American Eagle — are still largely or entirely paper-driven despite the availability of other electronic charting methods.

While paper charts will likely never go away due to the relative unreliability of a powered device in comparison to printed materials, this shift shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. The iPad, and tablet computing in general, eases comfortably into the niche between mobile devices and laptop computers. More portable than the latter and more versatile than the former, tablets are an ideal tool for business, a fact that a growing number of industries seem to be realizing.