Few technological advances have made a pilot’s life easier than the invention of the electronic flight bag (EFB). Rather than having to haul a manual-packed suitcase onboard weighing 40 or more lbs, pilots can now carry this data in digital form using a lightweight tablet computer. Better yet, the data within an EFB can be searched electronically, eliminating the need to rifle through indexes and masses of pages whenever an answer is needed – often in short order.
The formal name for this digital approach is Flight Operations Document Management Systems (Flight Ops Docs), which are evolving away from the strictly EFB focus to encompass other aspects of aircraft flight management. In this article, we’ll dig deeper into Flight Ops Docs to get a better understanding of what they are, what they offer, and a sense of what’s available on the market today.
Three Key Players
To get a better sense of what is happening in the Flight Ops Docs world, we spoke with executives at three key players in this industry. The first was Daniel Cook, Head of Marketing with Bytron Aviation Systems. The second was Tom Samuel, CEO of Comply365. And the third was Krister Genmark, VP of Sales with Web Manuals.
To put them in context, Bytron Aviation Systems (bytron.aero) is a UK company specializing in flight data management solutions for commercial airlines, cargo airlines and business aviation. It is known for its skybook Aviation Cloud and EFB (electronic flight bag), which integrates flight dispatch, crew briefing and EFB functions onto a tablet-usable platform.
“Simply put, our document management library is a central repository to store and distribute flight operation documents and manuals that can be updated and accessed by ground operations, and sent to EFB devices for pilots and aircraft operators,” said Cook. “This offers the ability for pilots to quickly view digital manuals and documents and have the ability to make annotations for other users to view.”
Comply365 (comply365.com) got its start working with several US airlines and the FAA to release the first approved electronic document reader, “thus helping airlines replace the 40 pounds of paper manuals pilots were required to carry on each flight,” Samuel said. The company has evolved since then and now serves the industry with an end-to-end operational content management, authoring and distribution platform.
When it comes to the electronic information that Comply365 offers to its customers, “I’d rather refer to the broader definition of Operational Content Management Systems, which are solutions to author, revise and distribute operational content to the frontline operational staff – including but not limited to Flight Operations,” he explained.
In the case of pilots, Comply365’s operational content includes mission-critical documents such as Flight Crew and Flight Operations Manuals (FCOM and FOM), Quick Reference Handbooks (QRH) and Minimum Equipment Lists (MEL). “These manuals are required to be always compliant with the applicable regulatory, manufacturer and aircraft operator standards, and are to be easily accessible by pilots before, during and post-flight,” said Samuel.
Meanwhile, the company’s integration of all relevant data into a central Operational Content Management System is meant to make life easier for aircraft operators. They want to rely on “a single platform that can efficiently manage the authoring, revision and distribution processes across all their manuals — OEM or company — and do so across all their departments such as flight operations, cabin operations, ground operations, and or maintenance operations,” he said.
Web Manuals (webmanuals.aero) specializes in developing digital document management solutions for the aviation industry. Its digital flight operations document management systems have been designed to condense compliance documents and safety regulations into one accessible place.
“Web Manuals’ Document Management System enables aviation professionals to edit, distribute and monitor manuals, all on one platform,” said Genmark. “The platform provides users with direct access to documents and allows them to easily view updated revisions, thereby enabling pilots and aircraft operators to streamline their regulatory processes and save valuable time. The result is better compliance, efficient management and safer operations.”
The Push for Digital Solutions
At the outset of this article, we noted that EFBs and Flight Ops Docs were developed to replace heavy, manual-crammed flight bags with lightweight, searchable documentation systems. However, the answer is a bit more complicated than that.
Certainly weight and data access were issues. But so too was ensuring that pilots and aircraft operators had access to the most up-to-date information sources, which has been a constant priority and challenge since the aviation industry was born.
“There’s no doubt that the aviation industry implements some of the most stringent safety regulations,” said Genmark. “With aviation companies often operating under multiple authorities, operators are tasked with keeping up with a variety of changing guidelines on a regular basis. [Unfortunately], the administrative task of searching through lengthy paper manuals can be extremely time-consuming for operators and imposes the risk of missing critical information.”
“Until about a decade ago, this process was very paper-based and manual: It required different data sources, quite often housed and managed in disparate systems,” Samuel agreed. To make matters even more challenging, “Some of those systems were proprietary and required specialized knowledge to manage — and potentially had individual workstreams, data duplication and a lot of manual processes. The end result of updating paper documents required a painstaking process to deliver new pages to all crews across the airline.”
The need to balance all of these demands — in addition to sparing pilots’ backs from constantly carrying overloaded flight bags — is what spurred the development of Flight Ops Docs. “Digital document management systems were designed to reduce this burden, minimizing the risk of human error and improving overall safety processes,” said Genmark.
A case in point: Web Manuals are designed to provide pilots and aircraft managers with easy-to-follow guidelines, thus enabling their companies to focus on other business areas without compromising regulatory compliance or safety. This platform (and other Flight Ops Docs systems) can also be updated as required, which is vital to achieving those two goals on an ongoing basis. “Flight manuals are continually evolving,” Genmark noted. “Every year, new regulations and increasingly complex guidelines are published to serve our dynamic industry.
In a larger yet similar context, “Operational Content Management systems were developed to better manage what used to be a complex, costly, very manual and error-prone process, and whose end goal is to deliver content to frontline crews who rely on it to conduct safe and efficient operations in accordance with regulations,” said Samuel. As well, the Document Management solution was developed to reduce the need for paper,” Cook said, “therefore saving time and money for the airlines.”
Trends Driving Flight Ops Docs
Today’s Flight Ops Docs systems are far more sophisticated than their predecessors, which basically swapped paper documents for electronic versions.
“EFB applications are a lot more interactive nowadays,” Cook noted, with the inclusion of Search and other user-driven functions. “Document management systems can also utilize a digital document to its full potential with highlighting, annotations and bookmarking, thus saving time for pilots. When there are updates to the digital document, these can be sent straight to the pilot’s EFB. If an aircraft operator annotates a manual on the EFB, this can then be synced to their pilots’ EFBs and to the flight ops team.”
These expanded capabilities in Bytron’s products have been spurred by customer demand. “User experience is one of our most important factors, which is why we always involve our customers in the roadmap development process,” said Cook. “This is why digital documents are stored and available on web-based platforms, and are sent to EFB devices on either iPads or Android tablets.”
Historically, these digital documents have been delivered to pilots as PDFs, although “the industry is now seeing its next wave of advancement by delivering XML-based content in HTML format,” said Samuel. “Today, Comply365’s mobile solution delivers smart HTML content — i.e., relevant, easily findable, and highly personalized — and is available on iOS, Android and Windows platforms”
Going digital has allowed companies like Comply365 to tailor their offerings to specific sectors within the aviation industry, rather than taking the ‘one size fits all’ approach of paper-based manuals. “The move to digital has created many efficiencies and reduced some of the complexity involved,” Samuel observed. “Documents can now be targeted to specific end-user groups, providing each user with more specific content that applies — more of what they need and less of what they don’t need.”
Then there’s the cloud, which is a force multiplier for Flight Ops Docs suppliers. When manuals and other documents are stored in the cloud, they are available to users on demand, and updated by document managers as required. Moreover, if the users download this data to their personal tablets, they can even access it while offline. The payoff: “By incorporating such technology into aviation manual management, companies can increase capacity, enhance functionality and add additional services, without having to commit to potentially expensive infrastructure costs or hire and train existing in-house support staff,” said Genmark.
All told, “document management IT systems today are very technologically sophisticated,” he observed. “As soon as a revised manual is published, users of Web Manuals’ document management platform can receive push notifications, making them aware of the most recent amendment. With direct access to the changes, users can easily export copy for wider company distribution — all in a matter of minutes. Adjusting an overall flight operation so seamlessly and quickly has the potential to significantly improve company compliance.”
This being said, Flight Ops Docs systems are only as good as the content stored in them and the intuitiveness of the tools they offer to users. It’s the old computer programmer’s mantra of ‘Garbage In, Garbage Out’: If the data going onto the program is substandard, then what comes out will be just as bad.
This is why creating a truly useful Flight Ops Docs system is as much an art as it is a science. “The ideal system should be simple enough for any contributor to participate but sophisticated enough that tech writing professionals can have control over the document and its structures,” said Samuel. “The authoring process must be efficient, with integrated workflows and a common, easy to use and learn editor. Finally, end-users need to receive smart content in a mobile environment that they quickly adopt and love.”
Challenges That Remain
As advanced as Flight Ops Docs systems have become in recent years, there are still challenges limiting the ability of this technology to meet all the needs of pilots, aircraft owners, and anyone else who can benefit from electronic document management systems.
A case in point: “I think a large challenge is fitting so much information into one application and ensuring that everything still runs smoothly,” Cook said. As well, “development of new modules can be a lengthy process and technology is always changing and improving so it means that staying ahead is an ongoing challenge.”
The steady adoption of digitally-driven processes and systems across business as a whole imposes challenges of its own. “As digitalization gains greater momentum across all industries, it’s important that document management IT systems are continually updating to compete with new technology and interface capabilities,” said Genmark. For example, “at Web Manuals, we consistently look for ways in which we can improve our product and user interface. To do this, our customer support team works closely alongside our partners to gain insight into how they use the tool, its benefits and areas that need improving.”
Finally, the desire by business managers for an overarching business overview system — one that allows them to see the interplay of all factors in a single space in order to inform and aid their decision-making — is another challenge for these software companies to overcome. “Aircraft operators are looking forward to having all their OEM, company, flight, and technical operations manuals — all schemas and fleet — in a single system,” Samuel said. “That’s a challenge for many who are still operating with legacy systems, plus multiple disparate systems that bog down operations. A single, simple, unified platform for managing operational content is a foundational requirement to be able to deliver non-PDF, ‘smart’ content to frontline operational staff.”
“We believe that, over time, operational content will not be delivered in document format, but rather, increasingly as ‘context-sensitive content’,” he added. “By that we mean just the information that operational staff need for their operational environment, whether it be specific aircraft type or aircraft tail they are operating, airport they are approaching, and the preferred language in which they would like to review operational content. Such personalized information can have a big positive impact on operational reliability and safety.”
All told, the development of Flight Ops Docs systems have been a real benefit for pilots, aircraft operators, aviation compliance officers, and anyone else in the industry whose job touches on flight manuals. Perhaps the only ones not to benefit from this technology are chiropractors: With fewer pilots toting 40 lb bags of books, fewer of them need relief from the back and shoulder injuries caused by carrying such heavy loads daily.