This is your captain speaking

How has connectivity changed aviation? Here’s what three pilots have to say

“The pilot climbs into his togs. Several sweaters, a scarf, a leather flying suit, fur-lined boots. His still sleeping body feels heavy...A deep-sea diver out of his element. But once settled into place, everything grows light.”

Antoine Saint-Exupery, author of The Little Prince, piloted across Europe and South America and wrote about his experiences in Night Flight and Southern Mail. The earliest pilots were faced with so many challenges that flying at night in the 1920s was considered heroic.

90 years later, pilots still have to do the same job as Saint-Exupery’s leather-flying suited character. Now, though, they’re helped by technology (and a roof).

Inmarsat’s SB-S, for example, is revolutionising the flight deck. From enabling Electronic Flight Bags (EFB) for real-time in-flight updates, to graphical weather for enhanced situational awareness, it’s a pivotal innovation in aviation safety. SB-S is also a key part of the technological revolution that is the complete connected aircraft.  

Airline pilot Patrick Smith, who writes the award-winning blog Ask the Pilot, says Wi-Fi will change the way pilots interact with the plane, but a pilot’s key skills will remain the same.  

“With all the new flight deck technology, you’re still controlling the plane, you’re just doing it slightly differently. You’re not controlling the plane with your hands on a stick like in the 1930s, but it’s still very hands on.”

In 2017, the ability to send emails, stream videos, and conduct virtual meetings from our mobile devices at 37,000ft in the air is becoming a reality for passengers. But how do pilots benefit? 


How always-on connectivity changes everything

Captain Mary I. McMillan, a former United Airlines pilot, and now Inmarsat’s Vice President Aviation Safety and Operational Services, says cockpit connectivity would have had a huge impact on her when she was a pilot.

“For one, being able to get up-to-date weather updates is fantastic. Back when I started flying, in our pre-flight meeting we were given charts showing the weather for the transoceanic flight. Once we left the ground all we had was onboard radar. Now, with Wi-Fi in the cockpit, pilots can keep abreast of bad weather systems, turbulence, and change their route depending on that information coming into the cockpit.”

She mentions the importance of being able to track flights too. “Thanks to positional tracking we can now tell where planes are at all times, which is beneficial in terms of safety, and also for air traffic control on the ground. It’s much easier to manage a congested airspace, which will, in turn, make flights quicker for pilots and passengers by reducing holding time at busy airports.”

Now this is live and instant

These updates mean pilots can plot routes that avoid fuel-guzzling crosswinds and turbulence, making flights smoother and more energy-efficient. "Previously you were reliant on using the radio at regular intervals to check for weather changes. Now this is live and instant – much easier for pilots and offering enhanced safety for passengers.”

Patrick Smith agrees that the flight deck would benefit hugely from inflight Wi-Fi.

“[Increased inflight connectivity] could have an impact on stressful situations in the cockpit. One thing I wish we had had was an improved interface between pilots and ground-staff. Communicating could certainly be more operator friendly - currently, it can be time-consuming for the pilot and  convoluted,” says Smith, and reels off further ways inflight connectivity could really help as a pilot. “Getting real-time weather information that can be uploaded directly to the cockpit would be helpful.”

Paperwork in the cockpit is a thing of the past

Twidell agrees: “At PrivateFly we offer private jet charter flights and as private jets operate like taxis in the sky, flight plans and schedules are variable and often made at short notice. So being able to access live weather information, maps and charts via an iPad is hugely beneficial to planning time. For most pilots, paperwork in the cockpit is a thing of the past."

Smith says that just being able to talk to dispatchers on the ground without the long-winded process in place now would be efficient. “Improved communication with air traffic control, receiving oceanic position reports, getting weather and maintenance, there are multiple times during a flight when you need real-time communication with ground staff.”

He adds that working through issues midflight, whether mechanical or medical, could be so much faster. Smith says: “Better connectivity would just speed everything up.”

Of course, with our skies growing ever busier, he adds, highly skilled pilots are more crucial than ever. But for our three veteran pilots, it’s clear that enhanced communications technology is introducing a new era of safer, more efficient flying.