Digital flight plan: Gulf Air goes mobile

Gulf Air digitises its pilots’ flight bags so that critical documents can be accessed via iPads in-flight

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Digital flight plan: Gulf Air goes mobile Dr Jassim Haji, director of IT, Gulf Air.
By  Tom Paye Published  April 21, 2015

For anyone even remotely familiar with Middle Eastern aviation, Gulf Air needs little introduction. Founded in 1950 as Gulf Aviation, the airline was once the national flag carrier for Bahrain, Qatar, the UAE and Oman, making it one of the most important businesses to the Gulf’s development. Before the Bahraini government took full control of the airline in 2006, Gulf Air secured a number of aviation firsts. For example, it was the first international airline to land at Riyadh; it was the first Arab airline to fly to Australia; and it was the first Arab airline to fly to Johannesburg.

This thirst for firsts has also been made evident within Gulf Air’s IT department, particularly since 2011, when Dr Jassim Haji was appointed as the airline’s director of IT. Since joining the company, Dr Haji has wowed the regional IT scene by embracing third-platform technologies and adopting them on an impressively large enterprise scale. As a result, Gulf Air was the first airline in the Middle East to adopt private cloud computing; it has been one of the region’s early adopters of big data analytics; and it has earned numerous ISO certifications, among other IT-related achievements.

Recently, the airline decided to use its skilled IT department to fix what had become a major business challenge. The challenge, though, was less about lowering costs — though this implementation did achieve cost reductions — and more about making life easier for some of its key employees — its pilots and flight staff.

Business challenge

As any seasoned pilot will attest, flying a commercial air liner takes huge amounts of preparation. There are flight paths to be planned, contingencies to work out, and maps to pour over, as well as information on passengers and cargo to be sifted through. On the event of the flight, all of this preparation work manifests itself in a flight bag — a folder of printed documents containing all the materials that a pilot might need to ensure a safe and effective trip. However, according to Dr Jassim Haji, director of IT at Gulf Air, this way of doing things is all a little 20th-century, and is certainly not the most effective way to fly.

“In order to fly aircrafts, pilots need to carry huge documents for aircraft manuals and materials that have been traditionally printed on paper. Those paper-based manuals are heavy, very time consuming to update and maintain, and costly. The pilots also need navigational charts as part of the flying process, which are traditionally printed on large papers. These are not easy to use in the small cockpit. Essentially, these traditional approaches for using paper-based materials are not convenient, and such heavy materials burn more fuel,” he says.

Along with the lack of convenience that this method results in, Dr Jassim also points out that the paper-based way of doing things also opened up the margin for error. Without going as far as to say that incidents were caused due to a lost file or map, he says it is certainly easy to imagine a scenario where one important document goes missing from a flight bag. With airlines always keen to improve passenger safety, it made sense to re-evaluate the concept of the physical flight bag, simply based on the fact that errors could be made.

The solution

To get around the problem of pilots having to prepare and carry-on large folders full of cumbersome documents, Gulf Air decided that the best thing to do would be to digitise the flight bag. That would mean equipping the pilots with tablet devices, which would be loaded with all of the materials that a pilot would need to complete the journey. And because the files are digital format, it would be easy for pilots to update them mid-flight, should the aircraft have to deviate from its original flight path. The idea, then, was to create an ‘electronic flight bag’ (EFB), which, according to Dr Haji, is the latest technological trend in the aviation sector. “It replaces the paper-based manuals and materials used by pilots during the flight by using tablets and electronic content,” he says.

However, Gulf Air did not want to simply buy a solution off the shelf, though some airlines globally have opted for this method. Instead, the company wanted to build and develop the electronic flight bag in-house, so that it could be totally integrated with the airline’s infrastructure.

“Gulf Air formulated an implementation approach to design the full solution internally and to build the solution using the different components - instead of simply relying on external parties to bring their solution as one box without Gulf Air having control or knowledge about the different components,” Dr Haji explains. “This way Gulf Air was able to use the best-of-breed for each component belonging to different providers and integrating them all together to provide the optimal EFB solution. This ensured that Gulf Air’s resources developed the technical knowledge of EFB and the required skills to design, implement, support and maintain such solutions.”

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