Another Airline Switches from Paper to iPads, But Are The Savings Worth It?

ipad photo

Photo via mattbuchanan via Flickr CC

Following in the footsteps of American Airlines, United Continental has announced it is switching from paper flight manuals and documentation to using iPads. The iPads will replace about 38 pounds of paper in the cockpit and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by an estimated 3,208 metric tons. But when you stop to think that the savings is equivalent to about two people flying across the country, is the savings really worth it? I'm itching to see a lifecycle analysis on this. I have a whole lot of questions:

How long will they keep an iPad in use? One year? Two? Most likely not more than two or three even in best case scenario what with the technology so rapidly changing and new models coming out.

What will they do with the iPads when they replace them? Will they be resold or, less preferrably, will they be recycled?

How much electricity will the iPad use, and how does that compare to the energy footprint of printing documents?

What if they switched to using only recycled paper? Would that reduction in GHGs actually be greater? What if they rethought what needs to be printed or carried onto a flight?

The list could go on and on. I think this might be something we'll want Pablo, our "Ask Pablo" columnist, to start untangling.

However, there are a few clear benefits to using an iPad for pilots, including that it's far easier to navigate through your materials on an iPad than in a pile of paper. You can find the information you need faster, and the maps or other navigation charts may be a better quality.

As United Continental states, "United and Continental pilots' work will be streamlined as they can immediately download updates on iPad to their electronic flight materials, rather than waiting for paper updates to be printed and distributed. In addition, by eliminating bulky flight bags loaded with paper, pilots will have less to lift and carry through airports and onboard the aircraft, reducing the risk of injury while on duty."

But making this move of airlines switching from paper to iPads into an eco-friendly move is a bit of a stretch. It might be smart, and it might have some short term savings. But it is not necessarily the most sustainable move.

The switch will save about 16 million sheets of paper and 326,000 gallons of fuel a year. It's definitely something that makes a dent. But roughly 70% of a laptop's lifetime energy use is consumed during manufacturing. If we assume this is true for iPads (and it is a fairly safe assumption), then exactly what is the net savings when factoring that energy consumption of 11,000 iPads into the first year of use?

Using iPads is new and different, and possibly better for the pilots. But amazingly green for the airline industry? Not really.

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