Are 11,000 iPads Worth Their Weight in Jet Fuel?

United-Continental estimates replacing paper with digital will save 326,000 gallons per year

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Apple is known for creating products that revolutionize industries. The iPod changed the way we listen to and buy music; the iPhone redefined the cell phone; and the iPad is transforming the airline industry. This morning United-Continental Airlines gifted its pilots Apple's touchscreen tablets reports The Wall Street Journal. "Distribution of 11,000 iPads began earlier this month, and the airline expects all its pilots to have the gadgets by year end." Going digital seems logical for pilots who previously had to lug around pounds of paper charts. But the benefits of putting iPads at the helm might not outweigh the downsides.

Pilots will use the iPads in lieu of bulky navigation maps, reducing flight weight and thus fuel costs explains SplatF's Dan Frommer. "United estimates the switch to iPads from paper will save 326,000 gallons of fuel per year. At current prices, that’s about $1 million worth." It's not that airlines haven't searched for a way to move away from paper charts, but efforts have either failed or proved to be just as heavy, as Investor Place's Susan J Aluise details. "For the past decade, airlines have been looking for a more efficient, paperless chart system, but to no avail. The FAA does allow pilots to use so-called electronic flight bags, but these aviation computers are bulky and weigh as much as 18 pounds." By contrast an iPad weighs less than 1.5 pounds, and "will replace about 38 pounds of paper operating manuals, navigation charts and other pilot materials" continues The Wall Street Journal.

But the move might not really save airlines, argues Frommer. "I don’t know what United is paying Apple for the iPads, but at retail, it would cost more than $5 million to buy them. (Plus the flight software, cases, etc., minus the cost of the paper charts being replaced.) So the fuel savings alone probably don’t make up for it, even if prices continue to rise."

Besides the weight advantages, the iPad provides some added features, like real-time access to the most-up-to-date charts concedes Frommer. Most aviation apps don't yet incorporate the device's GPS capability, explains Wired's Jason Paur. "The app only shows an electronic version of the paper charts Jeppesen has been producing for years," which has the advantage of being in one compact device rather than in a variety of thick books covering different parts of the country.

And what happens if the iPad malfunctions 30,000 feet in the air? To receive authorization the app and device went through pretty rigorous testing, Jeff Buhl, Jeppesen's product manager for the Mobile TC app assured Paur. "The Apple iOS operating system and the app proved 'extremely stable' during testing. In the 'unlikely' event of a software crash, he says, it takes but a moment to get them running again." Even if the iPad poops out, a few map-less seconds won't cause Airplane style mayhem. Of course, that's assuming it does indeed turn back on.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.