The power of technology and inflight connectivity was inadvertently revealed to me a few weeks ago as an interesting situation unfolded in the skies. Having spent over a decade working in this wonderfully infuriating airline industry has enabled me to spend quite a bit of time around aircraft in the air and on the ground; enough time that anything out of the ordinary typically catches my attention.
A few weeks ago, I was flying a major US carrier and had a window seat near the rear of the aircraft. As we were taking off, I noticed some liquid trailing off the aileron from a vent on top of the wing. Since it was a very hot day on the ground (100° F+) I assumed it was just fuel venting from the overflow valve on top of the wing and would stop once we reached altitude as the wing cooled to ambient air temperature. However, it did not. As we reached the top of climb the fuel leakage seemed to increase. Now, I was getting quite curious – not worried, just curious. I have been in this industry long enough and around aircraft enough to know when something is not quite right. It appeared the fuel loss that was occurring was not enough to even register in the cockpit on the fuel gauges but was enough to warrant maintenance taking a look once we got back on the ground.
So, what does my observance have to do with Wi-Fi on a plane?
Well, I decided some action was needed. I happened to know some people who worked the maintenance desk at the carrier’s control center and I had their email address. I fired up the trusty iPhone and snapped a picture of the wing (see picture below – the leak is the dark stain in front of the aileron). I then connected to the Wi-Fi network and emailed my friends the picture with an explanation of the events I was witnessing – all from the iPhone. A few minutes later, they responded that it wasn’t an emergency but they appreciated me sending them the information. The leak continued for the remainder of the utterly uneventful flight – even as we were pulling into the gate. As I exited the aircraft, two line maintenance AMTs were standing in the jetway. I stopped to speak with them and they said they were instructed to meet the plane because of a reported minor fuel leak.
Later my maintenance friends reiterated there was never any danger. I also spoke to a few pilots I know and they confirmed my suspicions that the leak would have never even registered on the fuel gauges and there was no danger whatsoever.
This is just an anecdotal story about exploiting technology in places we could not have imagined a decade ago – all done from a small handheld device (the iPhone) at 35,000′ with a Wi-Fi connection on a plane.
So, what does this mean?
One of the great effects of having inflight connectivity on an aircraft is the myriad things that can be done from both the operational and passenger standpoint. The most obvious benefit from the passenger perspective is using it just as you would at home, in the doctor’s office, or the grocery store – basically adding another link in the chain of continuous connectivity which some people desire so they can do such important things like checking email or updating their Facebook status.
Other less mundane uses is watching NFL games streamed to your iPad as you wing your way through the skies on any given fall Sunday afternoon (see picture to the right) or making sure the onboard moving map is as accurate as Flightaware.com’s positioning of the aircraft (see picture below).
From an operational point of view, there is even more exciting things which most passengers may never have the opportunity to see.
In the cockpit, an Internet connection could be used to transmit such things as weather images from ground-based radars giving the pilots a more complete picture of regional weather rather than solely relying on the aircraft’s weather radar.
Another benefit would be working in conjunction with the Electronic Flight Bag (EFB). A connected tablet device such as an iPad can replace a 40lb briefcase filled with charts, manuals, logbooks, and other documents related to operating the aircraft. The charts and documents are continually being updated on a weekly and monthly basis. I have spent many hours in the cockpit jumpseat during the cruise phase of flight watching crews page through approach plates and airport diagrams in a spiral binder replacing each updated page one by one. This is a tediously manual operation taking quite a bit of time to accomplish on a regular basis.
Enter the Internet.
An EFB-equipped aircraft could have all the manuals up-to-date daily with a simple internet push and auto-update of the tablet device saving the crews an inordinate amount of time and effort while assuring all charts are up-to-date (and not to mention the savings in fuel required to carry all those pounds of paper to altitude multiple times a day, day in and day out, year after year). A real-world example of the need for up-to-date charts is the Comair 191 crash at Lexington’s Blue Grass Airport in 2006 where the crew was found to be using outdated airport charts. While this was in no way the root cause of the accident, an updated chart could have given the crew better situational awareness before they entered the wrong runway for departure.
Initially I was against having Internet on planes since the flight time provided me with a few hours of blissful disconnection during my years of consulting. But after this experience, I am finally convinced once and for all of the useful nature of putting this technology to work in the skies.
A Lufthansa pilot explains some of the operational benefits of inflight connectivity in the movie below. (All photos are courtesy of the author.)