How British Airways is using the iPad to modernise air travel

British Airways is swapping dot-matrix printers and paper for Apple iPads and custom apps

Thomas McMullan
23 May 2016
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There was utopian promise in the airlines of the 20th century. Air travel in the decades following the Second World War was technology at its heady peak, an airborne world of families aloft in metal ships – reclining in front of tray meals, gazing down at clouds.

Fast-forward to the 21st century and air travel occupies a different position in the public consciousness. The utopian promise of empowerment – of soaring above the clouds – is undercut by the practicalities of transporting millions of passengers across the world, of rolling out millions of hot dinners, of stringent security checks, of being moved from place to place under commercial schedules as tight as the seals on a cabin’s Plexiglas windows.

As an airline, how do you modernise? How do you go about improving processes that have been in place since the 1980s? How do you give your passengers a sense that they are in control of their flight, when the contemporary demands of air travel mean they must be more coordinated than ever before?

Paperless planes

In 2008, to go along with the launch of Apple’s App Store, British Airways developed its first customer app. Since then, the airline has made over 40 custom apps, covering different aspects of air travel from check-in to flight-crew registers to aircraft turnaround. The airline now has 17,000 iPad devices across its operations, and a dedicated mobile-enabled operations group of iOS developers, service developers, and a testing team.

One of the most recent additions to BA’s digital roster is the iLoad app, used by Turn Around Managers (TRM) to increase efficiency in the narrow window between a plane landing and taking off again. The app’s role is to monitor and streamline tasks such as refuelling, safety checks, disembarking and boarding. As a general example, it represents a movement across British Airways’ operations, away from paper and towards digital-based, reactive information.

“It’s about changing the way we transfer information from one place to the next, and making it more efficient,” Abigail Comber, BA’s head of customer tells me. “[The TRMs] don’t have to sit and wait for the paperwork while the engine is churning and burning a tonne of fuel.”

Time is money in the aeroplane game, and anything that shaves off a few minutes when an aircraft is grounded is a valuable asset. There are environmental advantages as well, with less fuel being burnt between take-offs. While five or ten minutes on one flight may bring limited benefits, spread across an entire fleet it can add up to hundred of tonnes of saved fuel.

In the TRM’s hut, tucked beneath the jetty between the terminal and the plane, the manager works on an iPad. Beside him is a dot-matrix printer. It’s a reminder that for all its associations with space-age modernity, much of the technology to do with air travel – including many of the planes themselves – hasn’t been majorly upgraded since the 1980s. Apps such as iLoad offer a partial solution to modernising decades-old processes behind the scenes, but it’s only one part of the puzzle.

Personalised flights

Behind the scenes at Terminal 5 in Heathrow, a crew member called Adele sits beside me and shows me BA’s Passenger Information List (PIL) app. Made for iOS, the app details everyone onboard an individual flight, organised by seat and position in the aircraft. If I select someone I can view their food requirements, their flight connections, who their companions are and whether they have any other specific needs.  

Before the PIL app was introduced in 2012, the passenger lists would be printed on paper. Far from a thin leaflet, the reams dedicated to passenger seating, food requirements and transfers would add weight and printing time to the aircraft. A flightdeck would have to lug around an extra 25kg, and it would take as long as 20 minutes to print for certain types of aircraft. When you’re in a situation where weight and time equals fuel, slimming down on kilograms brings a valuable economic and ecological advantage over paper lists.

“It was inelegant, to say the least. It had limited amounts of information on it, and you needed to print it at the gate to take it with you,” Comber tells me. “The PIL in the iPad gives you so much information. You can download it before the doors close, and take the most up-to-date details. Because a lot can happen between the time you print a document and you actually get to the aircraft.”

From a crew member’s perspective, the PIL app offers a platform to log the most up-to-date information about passengers, organise details, and leave messages about certain individuals for other British Airways flights. If a passenger is travelling for a funeral, I’m told, it is possible to leave a personal message next to their name, to be picked up by another crew member on the return flight.

When I asked Adele if crew members could also leave messages about rowdy passengers, she smiled and told me that wasn’t the purpose of the feature.

The impression that you matter

From the passenger’s perspective, it gives the impression that they matter. Look over the airline adverts of the 1950s and 1960s and you’ll see a similar emphasis being sold, with air stewards and stewardesses fawning over individual passengers like waiters and waitresses in an airborne restaurant. The difference is that, with digital connectivity offered by technology such as iPads, the level of knowledge crew members can have on individual passengers has the potential to tap into a web of interconnected comments, connections and requirements.

There’s never going to be one single solution to modernising a very 20th century industry, but BA’s use of iPads shows there’s room for 21st century technology to complement – not just replace – decades old processes.

When talking about giving passengers a sense of control over their flight, the level of personalisation that comes with smart passenger lists goes a long way to making the service on a tightly coordinated flight seem tailored to the individual. Personalisation is entwined with our online shopping, news feeds and digital maps. With its growing group of apps, BA is bringing it to the skies, too.

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