Passengers on board Qantas Airline’s B767 aircraft already enjoy the benefits of gate-to-gate entertainment on the overhead screens. However, Qantas has raised the bar again with the introduction of Q Streaming. Following a successful trial earlier this year, every passenger on 16 767 aircraft will be provided with an Apple iPad, stowed in the seat pocket, that will grant access to more than 200 hours of movies, television and audio channels, whenever they want. The iPad automatically connects to an onboard server that stores on-demand entertainment and streams the content to each iPad.
Up in the cockpit, Qantas pilots no longer need to lug around 50-pound stacks of navigation charts, operations manuals, flight plans, safety reporting forms and other reference materials. Instead, four iPads programmed with this information and mounted within easy reach give Qantas pilots access with the swipe of a finger.
Both initiatives are examples of how the Australia-based Qantas – which serves more than 150 cities worldwide and generated $15 billion in revenue in 2011 – is using mobile technology to improve the in-flight experience for both passengers and crew, and in the process improve operations and save money.
Qantas Captain Alex Passerini, whose role is technical pilot, says mobile technology holds great promise in helping the airline make substantial customer service and operational improvements without costly upgrades to the aircraft’s built-in equipment. And while Qantas and other airlines still face regulatory limits to keeping customers and employees connected in flight, the airline is dedicated to pushing mobile technology’s capabilities as far as it can.
The iPads for pilots, called the Flight Crew Tablet program, will be rolled out to all of Qantas’ 2,200 pilots over the fall of 2012. Once in hand, pilots can view the screen instead of shuffling through paper to prepare for an upcoming flight, follow navigation charts and check operating instructions while airborne, view a weather map for signs of trouble or fill out a report. The pilots can receive real-time updates via the iPad while on the ground and during takeoffs and landings, and then via the plane’s onboard system once it is airborne.
“The safety implications of being able to provide information in a very timely, efficient and easily accessed manner to our flight crew is important,” Passerini says. “Let’s face it: The world is getting more complex. We need tools that help us manage all of this information in a more intuitive fashion.”
Passerini says the Flight Crew Tablet is dramatically cutting “latency,” or the time it takes to move information around its system. Getting updated paper navigation charts from Jeppesen, the Denver-based Boeing subsidiary that produces them, sometimes took three weeks because Qantas operations were on the other side of the world. Many heavy shipments of paper charts moved from Colorado to Los Angeles, and then to Sydney.
“There is a vast quantity of these charts for every airport around the world, and for every airway around the world that links those airports,” he says. “Obviously we’re a global airline so we’re not just focused on our region.”
Along with adding Jeppesen’s comprehensive navigation charts to the Flight Crew Tablet system, Qantas also programmed in its own extensive system of flight charts, as well as operating manuals from airline manufacturers and other cumbersome paper documents. Passerini estimates that this new mobile technology is saving Qantas about $1.5 million annually in the cost of distributing the charts and other documents, and in fuel costs for the extra weight the paperwork added to the plane.
“We print about 18,000 pages a day around the world with flight planning information alone,” says Passerini, “and we are going to cut that down to about 3,000 a day.”
Besides putting sound decision-making tools within easy reach for the flight crew, the tablets also help Qantas push critical information such as schedule changes to pilots on layovers. The airline previously had to track pilots down at their hotels, fax the information and arrange for a hotel employee to deliver it. The iPads – which the pilots can personalize – also help make long trips more bearable.
“We have a mobile workforce, a remote workforce,” Passerini explains. “They come through Sydney and then disappear, flying our airplanes for up to two weeks at a time. It can be difficult to reach them unless they are actually in the airplane. Engagement is important: being able to access these people when they’re away from home, communicate with them effectively and efficiently, and allow them to communicate with their friends and family.”
The consumer-friendly iPad was a natural choice for both the Flight Crew Tablet and Q Streaming: easy to learn and use, small enough to tuck into an airline seat pocket or mount on the pilot’s dashboard, and with enough screen resolution to display a hit movie or a detailed photo of a volcanic ash cloud.
“The iPad’s 9.7-inch display is the perfect size for us; it’s basically an A5 size page, which is the size that we use with our Jeppesen terminal charts right now,” says Passerini. “It provides a sufficient screen area to view typical aviation documents. It also gives you the graphics needed to view navigation charts.”
More than a decade ago, Qantas tried a primitive version of a tablet computer. But the device was limited because it was too large to mount in the cockpit and lacked the necessary resolution for viewing navigation charts. In the years that followed, the technology for transmitting and viewing information has evolved. At the same time, airline regulators around the world have approved more protocols for moving information electronically.
Apple’s iPads, introduced in 2010, has been a breakthrough for Qantas because it helps the airline develop systems quickly, without investing in costly on-board systems that can become obsolete. “For some aircraft, equipment that cost many hundreds of thousands of dollars is now generations behind what’s available in the devices like an iPad or a Samsung tablet,” Passerini says.
The airline worked closely with the Civil Aviation Safety Authority, the government body that regulates Australia’s airlines, to develop a system that could be safely used during takeoffs and landings without interfering with the plane’s avionics — the built-in communications systems. Qantas tested the cockpit iPads to ensure they did not interfere with flight controls, oxygen mask deployment, and emergency evacuations during takeoffs and landings.
In the future, Qantas will add even more information to the Flight Crew Tablet such as takeoff and landing performance for each flight. The airline also plans to give other employees access to mobile technology. Qantas hopes to give mechanics and engineers tablet computers that can display wiring diagrams and instructions for maintaining aircraft.
“Rather than having to go back into the shop, print out the pages they need and walk back out to the airplane, they would have access to this information in a form that’s easy to carry around, with some kind of protective shell around it,” says Passerini.
Cabin crews will also be receiving iPads to manage passenger information now on paper — such as which frequent fliers are on board, a passenger’s frequent destinations and meal preferences. While Qantas customers can already plan trips and display boarding passes on their personal mobile devices, the airline plans early in the new year to let them connect those devices to the Q Streaming server on board the plane. Qantas is also reviewing opportunities to expand Q Streaming to more aircraft in its fleet.
The big frontier in mobile technology is overcoming interference with the plane’s onboard communications systems, which would enable both crew and passengers to stay connected at all times and on more kinds of devices. A few Qantas flights in newer planes offer satellite wi-fi, for a premium, but plane avionics have not yet evolved to offer it everywhere.
“We tested a very specific configuration for the pilot iPads,” he says. “As you can imagine, our customers come onboard with all sorts of devices. We could never possibly test all of those different configurations.”
Still, many customers are clamoring to stay connected, and Qantas is keeping its eye on mobile technology. “In-flight connectivity is obviously being driven by customers,” he says. However, the airline won’t implement something that compromises the safety of passengers and crews.