A few days ago, Quartz, The Verge and other Internet media sources reported that several dozen American Airlines (AA) planes were grounded, as the iPads that the pilots use for navigation went black. It turned out that an app loaded with flight navigation manuals caused the glitch. AA reacted immediately, but there was an odd note in the company’s statement: “In some cases, the flight has had to return to the gate to access a Wi-Fi connection to fix the issue. We apologize for the inconvenience to our customers. We are working to have them on the way to their destination as soon as possible.”
Any American kid could instruct the pilots on how to delete the malfunctioning app and download the new one. But then, can you imagine a pilot with an iPad in his hand, running down the tarmac and trying to get closer to the airport building in order to get a stronger Wi-Fi signal? Did they have the Wi-Fi password (which airports usually keep locked)? And a credit card to pay for the Wi-Fi? Or did they just start rolling their huge planes closer to an airport building where they hoped to reactivate their Wi-Fi? All this because AA gave its pilots tablets without SIM cards for a phone signal strong enough to download any necessary app updates. And what happened to the AA planes in the air? Have flying AA pilots had similar problems? Did they have to switch to an automatic navigation system, or ask their flight control system to navigate them safely to a Wi-Fi hotspot? None of this has been reported on, and the failure of the tablets in pilot cabins disappeared from the media within a few hours.
I don’t believe that AA passengers were in danger during this incident. The iPads are not connected to the plane navigation systems or to their computers. But this malfunction does indicate a potential problem as airlines become more connected to the Internet and as digital communications increasingly replace radar and radio technology. In this light, the iPad blackout just adds to a long list of technical issues that might or might not be related to airplane crashes like the Air France flight that crashed into Atlantic in 2009, when the pilots were unable to correct an automated navigating system which reacted poorly to certain weather conditions and brought the plane down. Using apps and iPads in cockpits is becoming a trend: just a few days before this weird AA incident, aerospace supplier Honeywell offered a weather app to use while piloting big passenger jets. But how did we get here?
Try to picture pilots of passenger jets boarding their planes. While you wait to board, they come by, marching in line one by one: first the captain, and then the rest of the crew. Once, while waiting at JFK for the Air France flight to Paris on the Airbus A380, the biggest plane on Earth, I counted them. Between pilots and flight attendants, there were 28 in total marching into the plane.
Airplanes’ crewmembers are always impeccably dressed, the pilots clean shaven, the hostesses in perfect make up. They all roll their trolleys onto the plane, the pilots carrying an additional heavy, black leather briefcase. It looks important, like the “Nuke Football,” a travelling command post for launching nuclear missiles that the American and Russian presidents started using during the Cold War. While the supreme commanders in countries with nuclear weapons still travel with their black carry-ons, some airlines have freed their pilots of the their bulky black flight bags that they used to carry into the cockpit.
“Alaska Airlines received F.A.A. approval in May  to permit its pilots to consult digital flight, systems and performance manuals on the iPad — cutting about 25 pounds of paper from each flight bag,” reported the New York Times. It all sounded like part of the digital revolution, but it was actually just a simple cost saving operation. In 2013, AA estimated that the move would save it more than $1.2 million in fuel for a year.
AA is not the only carrier whose pilots and cabin crew switched from using paper charts and paper manuals to tablets. United Airlines also adopted iPads, while Delta has opted for Microsoft’s Surface Tablet. Other companies like British Airways and Ryanair may soon follow suit, since – in addition to saving on fuel costs – the airlines argue that the tablets are reducing the flight preparation time. That is, at least, what the situation was before last week’s incident.