From Auckland to Zurich, airlines crisscross the globe daily. Their pilots, like bus drivers or subway conductors, typically fly the same routes. Yet even if they’ve navigated these courses hundreds or thousands of times, no two trips are ever the same.

Cabin and cargo occupancies vary. Weather changes, often unpredictably. Even bird migration patterns can present challenges. Nor is every Boeing 777 or Airbus A380 the same, having flown different trips, experienced different environments and undergone separate maintenance. That leaves each plane with its own characteristics and quirks about which the pilot must be intimately aware.

Typically, pilots review all these particulars at their airline’s flight control center—an important yet tedious journey that begins well before take-off. Simply getting to these facilities within the airport, as well as reviewing the materials, can take up to 90 minutes before the crew heads for their gate. This all while toting luggage burdened with so many manuals, pilots’ bags felt more like heave-ons than carry-ons.

This preflight ritual could at times be a drain on the valuable time and energy of pilots and carriers, especially those on long-haul flights like the ones regularly operated by Singapore Airlines. (The company now boasts the longest non-stop route in the world: a nearly 19-hour, 8,285-mile flight from Newark to Singapore.)

Singapore Airlines was eager to digitize the preflight briefing to save their pilots the time and frustration of dealing with the existing system. Putting the materials onto tablet-based apps would enable pilots to prepare for their upcoming trips from the comfort of their home or hotel room, or even in the shuttle bus on the way to the airport. With the help of IBM and Apple’s MobileFirst for iOS platform, Singapore Airlines deployed a pair of apps in September 2017. These allow pilots to spend less time thumbing through manuals and calendars and focus on flying.

“If I had a solution where a pilot could obtain information for anything they had to do at any time, anywhere, at any place in the world, that would be the vision of these products,” Lorimer Yong, a management pilot with special duties for training at Singapore Airlines, said. “It’s really about having information at your fingertips.”

For the past 20-odd months, Yong has helped lead the effort to get iPads with IBM’s Fly Now and Roster apps into the hands of Singapore’s 2,600 pilots.

Fly Now has eased the burden for these pilots, often quite literally, since they previously had to lug as much as 50 pounds’ worth of manuals on a given flight to guide their decisions. Now, all that information is contained within a pilot’s iPad. And given how far and frequently Singapore and other carriers travel, many have predicted as much as seven-figure fuel savings annually from the reduced weight.

“A smooth and safe flight is always a top priority for airlines,” Dee Waddell, IBM’s global managing director for Travel & Transportation, said. “Today, we are seeing forward-thinking airlines like Singapore Airlines investing in digital technologies like MobileFirst for iOS.”

A Singapore 777 at the ready. (Photo: Singapore Airlines)

Even in today’s highly automated planes, pilots must be ready for every situation possible. At Singapore Airlines, pilots can now focus on that crucial work after reviewing the information in Fly Now, considering different flight paths, fuel levels and dozens of other factors from wherever is most convenient. Gone are the days of hurriedly hunting for the right page in one of their booklets or winding past slow-moving crowds at the airport after leaving the flight control center.

“A lot of the time pilots spent preparing has been trimmed off,” Yong said.

And in an industry where every second matters, these apps not only mean happier pilots but also better gate times and arrival scores—metrics that drive rankings and attract customers.

With time and convenience in mind, Singapore also deployed IBM’s Roster app to help pilots manage their schedules and communicate with one another for up to six weeks in advance. Yong said it was far easier to have this valuable information in the same place as the flight materials, and it made swapping shifts and other communications between crew more seamless.

“Pilots can now adjust their lifestyle around their duties,” Yong said. “They don’t have to log into web portals, as was the way before, which could be cumbersome.”

With more than 100 planes flying to more than 60 destinations around the world each day, cumbersome is never good. At Singapore Airlines, the paper is now down, wheels up.

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