American Airlines was forced to ground flights for a period earlier this week when their Electronic Flight Bag (EFB) on which pilots carry instrument approach charts, navigational data, and other aircraft information, including manuals, using an Apple iPad, rather than carrying a large suitcase of paper manuals and charts. A total of 74 of the company’s 6,700 daily flights were affected before a solution could be communicated across the airline. The use of iPads by pilots as Electronic Flight Bags was implemented at American in 2013 and is estimated to save $1.2 million annually through lower weight and fuel bills.
American uses standard iPads with a third party application to manage the data and updates of that data. Pilots connect their iPads to a centralized system to download updated charts, replacing the tedious process of manually updating and replacing paper charts in notebooks and ensuring that everything is up to date.
The difficulty, in this instance, was an update that resulted in two approach charts being installed for Washington Reagan airport, one effective through that evening and the other to become effective the following day. With the same name for the chart, the application identified the chart as a duplicate rather than an update, and was unable to reconcile the charts and slowed the application to a crawl. American prefers to provide its pilots new charts for review 24 hours in advance, so the existing and future charts were both on the system, causing the conflict.
The situation was quickly remedied by having pilots uninstall and reinstall the EFB application, but that required a WiFi connection and that meant pilots had to taxi back to the gates, thus delaying departing flights. American’s application is installed on more than 8,000 iPads used by pilots in their system.
The software for American is provided by Jeppesen, a Boeing subsidiary that is also a premier publisher of navigation charts. A statement from Jeppesen indicated “this is the first time we’ve ever encountered this problem. The version of the software is unique to American, so we don’t anticipate anybody else having the issue. We’re confident that we’ve isolated it and it’s an anomaly. We of course will be doing a deeper root cause analysis to make sure that we fully understand what caused the situation, how it happened, and what can be done to ensure that it doesn’t happen again.”
With the release of a GAO report on cyber-security weaknesses last week, this glitch comes at a time when many are concerned about information security. While this appears not to be the result of any foul play, the use of iPads and other devices, and security procedures surrounding their use, remain a concern. While pilots are not supposed to use an iPad for personal purposes, our 2014 EFB survey indicated that such rules are not always followed, exposing iPads and other EFB tablets to potential malicious websites. Fortunately, this was not a cyber-security event, but indicates the magnitude of an impact that could occur.
The Bottom Line: Advanced technology can bring savings, and American’s iPads replaced 24 million pages of updated documents without manual efforts, a huge savings in both time and weight. The reliability of the system has frankly worked better than many expected, and has been highly productive. But with new systems comes software and security risks. Having a back-up plan is essential when systems like this fail.