The fast-moving world of electronic flight bags

In today's Talking Point, Chris Kjelgaard explores the fast moving world of electronic flight bags.

In researching a feature article on developments in electronic flight bag (EFB) technology and functionality for the next issue of ATE&M (Issue 139, December 2015-January 2016), some basic but important generalities about the industry have quickly become clear to me.

One is that the EFB market is evolving rapidly, both in terms of technology and functionality. Most airlines have already moved towards adopting hand-portable tablet computers as the electronic devices they use for their pilot EFBs.

This trend is so pronounced that the original classification of Class 1, Class 2 and Class 3 EFBs – this last category being EFB equipment permanently installed in the cockpit and certified along with the aircraft type by the manufacturer – no longer makes sense.

Rather, a new classification has emerged based largely on the levels of functionality that EFB software offers – in other words, the apps with which an EFB is provided.

Today’s classification of EFB functionality into types A, B and C software refer primarily to the degree of impact on operation of the aircraft the apps in a given EFB represent, as they interact with the aircraft’s flight-deck instrumentation and controls through the aircraft interface device to which the EFB is linked.

While not officially classified exactly as such, the highest EFB software classification – Type C – is given to an app which is intended to influence the primary navigation of an aircraft through the information the app provides to the pilots to help determine the aircraft’s location and position and/or influence the pilots’ subsequent navigation actions.

This type of app must be approved by the FAA, EASA or another national/regional airworthiness certification authority, whereas Type A and Type B apps are approved only by the operator of the aircraft.

Another generality about the EFB industry is that although the technology and use of EFBs is advancing rapidly, most airlines are still in the early stages of adoption of EFB functionality as a basic flight-control and flight-information tool.

Some large airlines known for their technical excellence – you can guess their names, but I won’t mention them here – are already advanced users of EFBs in terms of the functionality provided by the portable or installed EFB units these carriers’ pilots use.

However, many others, some operating in the most mature and technologically advanced markets, are still learning the ropes with EFBs. In a Facebook conversation the other day with a friend and former colleague of mine who is now a first officer on large regional jets operated by a large subsidiary of a very large US airline, I learned he had only recently been issued with his first EFB and still was very much learning his way around the basic functions of the tablet.

A third generality which clearly applies at this stage is that the entire EFB movement is still in its infancy in terms of how the technology will advance beyond the cockpit into various other operational and commercial functions of airlines.

While aircraft manufacturers already make fairly routine use of wireless portable devices to make their production and inventory-control functions more efficient (see ‘Radio Stars’, ATE&M issue 130, page 76), many airlines are not yet as advanced in adopting wireless technology to improve their operational efficiency and customer care.

This will change, as more and more flight attendants, ground agents and maintenance technicians are equipped with cabin flight bags or similar devices to help them perform their specific functions better. In the process, this will improve overall airline service levels in terms of both customer care and operational reliability.

But as a complete neophyte to the fascinating world of EFBs – I don’t even own a smart phone, let alone a tablet – I believe that with the fresh viewpoint of an innocent I might have identified a potentially sizeable market gap.

I have asked experts why this should be and I’ve received honest answers which basically tell me that a major opportunity may well exist for a potentially lucrative EFB cooperation between an airline and an IT company or software developer.

Would you like to know what this potential opportunity is? Then read the feature on the electronic flight bag business in the next issue of ATE&M.

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