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Microsoft's Surface tablet makes its way into more airline cockpits

One Surface tablet will replace 50 pounds of manuals, a relief for pilots.

Microsoft Surface tablet airline manuals
Credit: Mark Hachman

If you've ever traveled by air and saw pilots walking toward their flying office, you've probably noticed they are wheeling a small piece of luggage behind them that is much too small to be a practical suitcase.

That case is actually the manuals they need for flight, which they can reference in a time of need. Problem is, these manuals weigh up to 50 pounds, which is why they are in a small suitcase and being dragged on wheels. Who wants to carry that kind of load in a backpack? 

As it is, the pilots have to wrestle the case into an out-of-the-way place in the cockpit, and one pilot has spoken of colleagues being injured when dealing with the heavy manuals.

For several years, airlines have been shifting these monstrous manuals to tablets, almost all of them Apple's iPad. The airlines call these tablet replacements "Electronic Flight Bags."

Some airlines, however, have gone with Microsoft Surface, including Delta, Lufthansa, and Emirates. Now Microsoft has two more wins: the U.S. regional airlines SkyWest and ExpressJet. Between the two, that's 7,500 more pilots using a tablet instead of manuals and using Surface instead of an iPad. 

It's also a smart strategy for Microsoft, because regionals are to airlines what the minor leagues are to baseball. Pretty much every pilot flying for the majors – United, American, Delta, Southwest, etc. – started out working for a regional. That's where they get the hours they need before being considered by a major airline.

So, if young pilots are learning on Surface, when they go to a major airline they may express a preference for Surface. It kind of reminds me of Apple's collegiate strategy. Get the students at the college level and they will want Macs in the workplace after they graduate.

That said, let's be real. While it's possible that pilots starting out with regionals may ask for Surface over iPad when they move up to the big leagues, they will use the device their airline chose. Getting FAA approval is not trivial, and pilots who prefer one tablet over another will not be allowed a substitute. BYOD is not happening in a heavily regulated industry like the airline industry.

What can I say, just trying to be optimistic. The one thing that surprises me is they are going with Surface 3, when the Surface 4 has been announced. But they are using Surface 3s with Windows 10, so they have that going for them.

Here is a video from Austrian Airlines, explaining how it uses Surface 3 in all of its planes.  

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