Updated to include comment from American Airlines and Southwest Airlines.
It is not without some irony that passengers flying on many aircraft in the US fleet have more weather information at their disposal than the pilots.
That’s because passengers are able to use inflight Wi-Fi in the cabin, whilst the captain and first officer aren’t even permitted to access Wi-Fi for real-time electronic flight bag (EFB) applications.
Here’s a picture of the placard found in the cockpit of myriad Boeing 737NGs.
So, why do passengers get all the love and not the pilots?
Certainly, there are operational and security considerations for allowing pilots to access a cabin Wi-Fi link, though some carriers are taking tentative steps in that direction. Delta Air Lines, which has fitted its entire mainline domestic fleet with Gogo inflight Wi-Fi, last year started testing iPads and other PEDs as electronic flight bags (EFBs), saying it could ultimately push important information to pilots regardless of location in real time. Delta senior VP-flight operations Steve Dickson noted at the time: ”Where we are currently constrained for touch points between the OCC [operational control centre] and Flight Ops, a tablet device opens the door for us to have nearly unlimited communication access.”
More recently, American Airlines – also a Gogo customer – has been working to equip its pilots with iPad-based EFBs, and the FAA has given the green light for them to use the devices during takeoff and landing. Incidentally, the carrier is also arming its flight attendants with Samsung Galaxy Notes to ensure they have “real-time data and information” in order to serve customers better “on board the aircraft, in the terminal and in real time no matter where we may be”.
Neither US major has announced a formal plan to exploit the connectivity pipe for pilots, even though it can be soundly argued that Class 1 portable EFBs won’t reach their full potential without a broadband connection (at present, passengers are not allowed to use their own personal electronic devices during critical phases of flight…a slice of irony to be discussed at another time).
Meanwhile, US low-cost giant Southwest Airlines, which has fitted hundreds of 737s with Row 44′s satellite-supported connectivity system, has revealed to the APEX editor’s blog that it is hopeful its 737NGs will be “equipped with cockpit Wi-Fi hopefully by the end of the year”.
On the international front, Lufthansa previously said its FlyNet high-speed Internet service on overseas flights would be used for real-time EFB applications to give pilots the benefit of live satellite pictures and updated wind data, which when combined with the processing power of the EFB would allow them to recalculate flight plans more efficiently than ever before.
Beyond operational considerations, however, there are still some concerns that transmitting portable electronic devices (T-PEDs), like a transmitting iPad, could cause electro magnetic interference (EMI) with avionics. Indeed, Honeywell Phase 3 cockpit display units (DUs) on Boeing 737NGs proved to be susceptible to electro magnetic interference (EMI) when subjected to ground test procedures specified by the FAA for installation of wireless systems.
As a stipulation for receiving supplemental type certification for wireless systems, 737NG operators with Honeywell Phase 3 DUs agreed not to allow pilots to access inflight Wi-Fi, and in turn placarded their cockpits with signs as seen above (connectivity-equipped 777s with the same displays must adhere to the same protocol).
Some pilots think that this level of caution is unwarranted, especially since blanking was not observed in-flight, (and only one time on the ground, according to Honeywell). “What drives me crazy is that they point the transmitter at these screens [during testing] and blast an insane amount of power at them. The notion that my Wi-Fi is going to cause any kind of problem is ridiculous, but that’s the world we live in,” suggests a veteran 737 pilot in the US fleet.
He says he’s frustrated that pilots do not have access to the same weather information that passengers can easily access via Wi-Fi in the cabin. “It would be great to look at some of the weather not confined to our 70 degree/80 mile beam and figure out a better plan. There is a lot of stuff out there that could make us better capable of doing our job. It would be nice to have a real-time position on our EFBs, and we’re about to go full iPad here in December; it would be nice to have real-time position on the charts,” notes the 737 pilot.
It comes as welcome news, then, that Boeing and Honeywell have developed a fix to the Phase 3 DU, called the ‘Phase 3A’, which addresses the EMI susceptibility issue. Bret Jensen of Boeing Commercial Airplanes’ engineering communications unit told the APEX editor’s blog yesterday that, “The first 737 with the new 3A DUs was delivered in September. The first 777 with the new 3A DUs was delivered in early October.”
He also confirms that the Service Bulletin has been issued and is awaiting FAA approval. “We anticipate approval very soon,” says Jensen.
Southwest chief engineer Brian Gleason says, however, “Our understanding is Boeing is not delivering the modified displays until sometime in 2013.”
What will the fix entail? Boeing declined to provide a copy of the Service Bulletin, and Honeywell has deferred all questions about the matter to Boeing.
But a fix means that 737NG operators will soon be able to upgrade to Honeywell Phase 3A displays. Indeed, Southwest is hopeful that the restriction concerning Honeywell avionics “will be lifted soon”, as it has been holding up the carrier’s plan to equip its cockpits with Wi-Fi. Southwest has a mixture of Phase 2 and Phase 3 displays and has been “working actively with Honeywell, Row44, and the FAA to resolve the issue surrounding the use of Wi-Fi in aircraft that have the Honeywell Phase 3 displays installed”, notes Gleason.
American Airlines, which also operates 737NGs with Phase 3 displays, says: “We are watching very closely to see what options are developed by Boeing and approved by the FAA. Once a FAA-approved solution is implemented, we will determine next steps for our pilots and our fleet. Providing our pilots and flight crews with technology to enhance job performance, safety and customer experience continues to be one of our top priorities.”
The 737NG’s successor, the 737 MAX, meanwhile will feature large-format displays from Rockwell Collins, not Honeywell. The switch was simply part of Boeing’s decision to adopt a family approach, Boeing Commercial Airplanes VP of marketing Randy Tinseth said at the recent ALTA Airline Leaders Forum in Panama City, noting that the 737 MAX will leverage Rockwell Collins’ flight display technology from the Boeing 787 Dreamliner (the displays are also featured on the Boeing KC-46 Tanker, and as a retrofit offering for existing 757 and 767 aircraft).
Rockwell Collins senior director of Boeing air transport programmes Brad Weyer says: “Our displays are certified on the Dreamliner and will be certified on the MAX. They will be certified to all the current safety and regulatory standards that safety critical systems have to be certified to, EMI, and that kind of thing. I do have a great deal of confidence we’ll follow all those safety standards, and put a reliable and safe product with MAX customers, and we’ll be working with Boeing on that every step of the way.”
He adds that Rockwell Collins’ display equipment – which is built around open architecture – will allow it “in a very value oriented way to bring new technologies and new capabilities to the airplane as they come into the industry”.