United Continental Cockpits Go Paperless, via iPads


United Continental Holdings

(UAL) announced Tuesday that its flight decks will go paperless, with pilots using Apple (AAPL) iPad tablets instead of manuals and charts.

Eleven thousand iPads will be distributed to United and Continental pilots, a process that began earlier this month. All pilots are scheduled to have "electronic flight bags (EFB)" by the end of the year. The iPads come loaded with a navigational app by Jeppesen, a subsidiary of Boeing (BA).

United Continental estimates that the change will save 16 million sheets of paper and 326,000 gallons of jet fuel per year, since the iPad, with a weight of less than 1.5 pounds, "will replace approximately 38 pounds of paper operating manuals, navigation charts, reference handbooks, flight checklists, logbooks and weather information in a pilot's flight bag," which on average contains "12,000 sheets of paper." A savings of 326,000 gallons of jet fuel per year would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 3,208 metric tons annually.

"With iPad," the company said in a press release, "pilots are able to quickly and efficiently access reference material without having to thumb through thousands of sheets of paper and reduce clutter on the flight deck." The statement did not address the question of backup, should the devices somehow fail.

United Continental is not the first carrier to switch to the iPad: Earlier this year, Alaska Airlines (ALK) and American Airlines (AA) began giving their pilots the Apple tablets, and British Airways is starting a pilot program to test the use of the iPad 2 by cabin crew in lieu of paper passenger manifests. But United Continental's program sounds like the most comprehensive by far.

Upgrades won't be limited to the cockpit: The company plans to spend more than half a billion dollars installing various cabin amenities, including flat-bed seats on an additional 62 long-haul planes, extra economy legroom on 300 aircraft, and expanded overhead storage space on more than 150 jets. Boeing 747-400s will feature streaming wireless video. CEO Jeff Smisek announced these improvements on Monday in Denver. In a statement, Smisek said, "We are planning many other product enhancements, both on the ground and in the air, which we will announce in the future."

United Continental, the holding company for United and Continental Airlines (which merged in October), is the world's largest carrier.