A version of this article appears in the May 12 edition of Aviation Week & Space Technology.

Based on tips that some pilots use their tablets for web-surfing or other non-core business during the long and typically boring cruise phase of flight, my January Airline Intel column questioned whether “sterile cockpit rules” of yesteryear may need to be updated in part because of the convergence of “personal” tablets and broadband Wi-Fi coming to the cockpit (AW&ST Jan. 27, 

p. 15). I used the Netflix image to illustrate the topic at hand—and it turns out that pilots have been thinking along the Netflix lines.

United Airlines, as part of its E-enabling project, is installing Wi-Fi on its mainline fleet, and a portion of that bandwidth in each aircraft will be “carved out” for the cockpit by way of a router and specific onboard network for the 11,000-plus pilots carrying company-issued iPads. “[The bandwidth] is not enough to watch Netflix videos, but we’ve heard that complaint,” says Joe Burns, senior technical advisor for flight operations for United. “That tells me we have to go back and work on standards issues.” 

Burns was speaking about the evolution of iPads and tablets in the cockpit at Aviation Week’s MRO Americas conference in Phoenix last month, along with Ross Armstrong, electronic flight bag administrator for FedEx. The cargo carrier has provided more than 4,300 of its pilots with iPads, initially to use as a chart and document backup for the installed electronic flight bags. United in the near future will use its iPads, or follow-on tablets, for all charts and documents as well for real-time, en route strategic weather planning.

Both United and FedEx have a new tool to gain insight into and control over what pilots are up to: a mobile device manager (MDM) from AirWatch. Billed as “the largest enterprise mobility management provider,” AirWatch’s MDM “allows you to gain visibility over the devices, . . . configure and update device settings over the air, and enforce security policies and compliance across your entire device fleet,” the company says. That gives an airline the ability to update documents across a fleet, track a lost iPad and erase its contents, see what applications pilots have downloaded and delete any that shouldn’t be there. It sounds Orwellian, but airlines see it as essential in the world of connected devices.

“The reality is that when you have 11,000 units out there, if you left it up to the pilots to manage the files, I guarantee you’ll find two or three iPads with every flight operations manual that was issued in the last two years, and they’re using the wrong one inadvertently when they’re flying,” says Burns. “We automatically update and replace manuals when the expiration hits. Everybody’s legal.”

Burns says United has disabled Apple’s App Store on the iPads, “not because I’m afraid of what they’re going to put on there, but because of size restrictions.” Instead, pilots have a “White List” of approved apps they can load, in part based on requests made to a user’s group. “If pilots say they really want a London Underground tube map or running trails in D.C. on their iPads, we’ll allow those,” he says. “The reality is we allow [pilots to use] certain productivity-type sites, weather and scheduling and things related to the flight.”

If the pilots do load something they shouldn’t, the MDM can see it and report it. “We can tell every app that the pilots have loaded, but we don’t look at the data,” says Burns, a restriction that is specified in the collective-bargaining agreement with the Air Line Pilots Association. Officials are also not allowed to read email, information the MDM could also provide. “It’s not a punitive thing,” says Burns of the app tracking. “We need to know if there’s a problem.” If problematic apps are found, they can be removed remotely through the MDM, he says.

FedEx’s Armstrong says the carrier allows pilots to load whatever apps they like, as long as there are at least 3GB of memory free for flying. “Due to the security of the iPad, we don’t have to worry about one of their apps interfering with the operational apps on the device,” he says. If the pilots approach their free-memory threshold, the MDM can alert officials and issue pilots a pop-up window if they exceed the limit. Armstrong says FedEx does not mandate that pilots enable the MDM’s location-services feature. “But we tell them that should they lose [the iPad] and it’s disabled, it shows up as lost and they’re responsible for it,” he says. “If they chose to turn it on, we’re not tracking it. If you call in sick, we don’t have a program in place to see where your iPad is.”

United also uses the MDM to track its iPads and can perform a remote wipe if one is stolen or left behind. Standards issues for United are discussed annually at a meeting of 400 standards captains, who put up a list of the “most popular” apps that have purposefully or mistakenly been uploaded. The transgressions are generally comic. “You always get a roar out of the crowd,” says Burns.