Today I am at Day One of the Airline & Aerospace MRO & Operations IT Conference, looking primarily at EFB and EFB enabled systems. As I sort through the assault of information that comes at you at these events, I’ll be musing here on Flight.Org on what I’m learning.

Whether seeking the heftily priced Class Three EFB – typically installed by the aircraft manufacturer with its certified software and links with onboard aircraft systems and the outside world – or the less capable but more realistically priced Class One or Two EFB solutions, Flight Operations and more recently Engineering Departments have spent the better part of a decade struggling to justify the expense of even the lower end solutions into the aircraft and airline’s systems. They’re looking for the Killer Application.

The Killer Application.

The Killer App will make a clear case for the EFB. It will patently justify the investment in hardware, software and software development to airline management and the accountants. As such it will bring to the airline operating efficiencies in numerous areas of Flight Operations, Engineering, Flight Planning and Navigation, Technical Services, In Flight Services (Cabin Crew), and more. It will justify the conversion of paper to electrons for all the trees currently on the aircraft – including the conversion of manuals from Word-printed-to-PDF into thoroughly described true XML document objects. Not to mention increased flight safety in the form of an auditable “paper trail” of document updates to the aircraft, and thus greater visibility of compliance with regulatory requirements and significantly decreased human errors rates in the delivery of this material. Also improved situational awareness for flight crew in the air and most especially on the ground through the GPS enabled chart applications.

All of these efficiencies and improvements are offered by EFB as long as we can find the Killer App to pay for it. So which is it?

Flight Deck Applications.

It’s pretty clear now that the Killer App won’t be on the flight deck. It won’t be the Jeppesen (or other) charting software, with its pricing model so clearly based on the individual delivery of paper charts to each pilot that steps into an aircraft. No cost savings there, irrespective of the improvement to flight safety. It won’t be eTechLog either, despite the interest shown by Engineering in the accurate, timely transmission of aircraft fault data (from the cabin and the flight deck) to maximise the potential for defect rectification during the limited aircraft turnaround times in today’s airlines. It certainly won’t be eReporting with its timely, digitally signed, encrypted transmission of training grading data or other flight operations / engineering / cabin crew department reports and data. No smoking gun there I’m afraid. Will it be in the Cabin then?

Cabin Applications.

This is where the focus has turned in most airlines – particularly those resisting to various degrees the lowest-cost mentality, intent on providing a service to their returning customers. Arming the cabin crew with detailed, accessible, graphical, individualised passenger contact history (good or bad) to achieve either service delivery excellence, or service recovery. On the fly tactical re-seating tools for split families and groups. Point and Shoot cabin defect recording, with connectivity that ensures that a defective seat will either be fixed or blocked prior to the next revenue paying passenger sitting in it.

Or perhaps a tablet with a camera (sorry Apple iPad) that enables pictures of defects, lost items, even passenger service excellence/recovery features (“Let me take a picture of you and your new wife Mr. Jones – where would you like that e-mailed to?”). Are these the apps that will finally deliver EFB into our aircraft for the rest of us?

Or perhaps with the associated connectivity, EFB can savage away at the millions of dollars of credit card fraud borne by most airlines selling duty free and other high priced goods on board the aircraft. Being able to verify credit cards and engage sophisticated ground based algorithms utilising up to the minute information to statistically identify likely suspect cards, prompting crew to require either alternative forms of payment or an ID check. Is this the app that will pay for EFB?

Perhaps, but probably not.

EFB the technology enabler.

What most airlines seem to be missing is The Vision. The difficulty experienced in identifying the Killer App over the last ten years is that there isn’t one. The Killer App is the EFB itself.

Like the Internet of the early 90’s, EFB is not something Flight Operations buys to add to its stable of new toys – it’s a tool the entire airline benefits from, something that will bring competitive operating efficiencies and safety improvements, even if you don’t quite yet know why or how.

Like the Internet, EFB is a technology enabler which should be the domain of no single airline department but be managed by the IT department itself to enable all relevant departments to consider it as a platform available for technology development. With its issues of operating systems and application certification, relatively limited memory capacity, periods of significantly reduced bandwidth and perhaps relatively high hardware costs (for the Class 2/2.5 devices) – access to this resource needs to be carefully evaluated and managed by a department interested preserving the operating efficiencies of the device itself – preserving the technology for all to use – instead of a single department or application. Doesn’t that sound like a well functioning IT department in action?

Contrary to the premise of this article, the EFB Killer Application can in fact be an EFB killer – when the choice of hardware, operating system and software so skewed towards the implementation of one use of the device results in a reduction of the operating efficiencies of others and precludes future application development and deployment.

Like the Internet, EFB hardware and software selection needs to be made as much as practicable on an open source basis with a view to enabling the applications of today and tomorrow. An open source operating system, hardware that will increase potential functionality, develop software with an eye to future operating system releases.

Build it, Buy it, and the Apps will come. Where have we seen that before?