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The sky’s the limit: how Norwegian Air Shuttle is empowering its pilots

There was a time, not too long ago, when pilots around the world carried flight bags with them for each flight. Filled with documents such as operating manuals, navigational charts, weather information and more, each bag could easily weigh more than 80kg – around the same as two fully-grown German Shepherds. Thankfully for pilots, times have changed.

Now, Electronic Flight Bags (EFBs) in the form of tablet devices have replaced the vast antiquated stacks of paper. Lighter, smaller, easily updatable and more environmentally friendly, the reduced weight over long haul flights also adds up to enormous fuel savings, and improved environmental impact.

One Airline that has embraced transformation is Norwegian Air Shuttle. Based in Oslo, the airline is Europe’s principle low-cost carrier and the largest airline in Scandinavia. As a global airline, Norwegian requires uninterrupted communications between these EFB devices and airports in countries that have varying telecommunications standards. When it needed to update its EFB devices with one best-suited to changeable cockpit environments and telecommunication needs, the airline turned to the Surface Pro with LTE Advanced.

The DNA of an Electronic Flight Bag
EFBs must fulfill numerous criteria. They must be easily and reliably connected to the internet, physically tough, highly responsive, and easy to use. The internet connection is of particular importance, as without it, pilots cannot carry out vital communications.

Different telecommunication standards between countries/regions, however, complicate life for flight crews. Norwegian Air Shuttle EFB Administrator Klaus Olsen – who relies on pilot input to find the devices needed to help keep passengers and crew safe – made solving this connectivity issue one of his top priorities when leading his latest device refresh cycle. “We need to be sure that our crews have connectivity wherever they are,” Olsen says. “Most countries in the EU follow one standard, the United States another. These are easy to deal with, but as we branch out to more and more destinations all over the world, there are more variations to deal with.”

Long-Term Evolution (LTE) is a global broadband standard for wireless devices that can guarantee such connectivity. The Surface Pro with LTE Advanced device is equipped to take advantage of the latest LTE technology for greater capacity and speed, and it can connect to the internet by using an embedded-SIM (eSIM) chip.

Only one device provided the best value—the performance we need at a reasonable cost that ticked every box on the list, plus LTE

Unlike conventional subscriber identity module (SIM) cards, which are used to authenticate a user’s identity with a mobile service provider, an eSIM is permanently embedded in a device, eliminating the need to acquire physical SIM cards from a carrier. “We saw that this device was able to take advantage of eSIM technology, which is uncharted territory in our industry,” says Olsen. “We’ve envisioned this for a long time because it’s easy to lose physical SIM cards. And with the eSIM and Microsoft Intune, we can send up to 20 SIM profiles to one client so that we can find the right profile for the region where we’re flying and quickly activate it.” In addition, because the eSIM is non-removable, there are no issues in matching the various physical SIM card sizes to devices.

A tough job
EFB devices need to be tough. Flying through sub-zero temperatures in Norway during a brutal winter one day and landing in the searing heat of Dubai the next, demands a device that can stand up to temperature extremes. Even in a climate-controlled cockpit, devices are subjected to direct sunlight and cold because of their placement.

These devices must also remain stable and reliable regardless of exposure to rapid decompression. Among the requirements that are mandated by various regulatory bodies, including the United States Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), EFB devices must also have fail-safe power sources. For Olsen, Microsoft provides an advantage, as it maintains a dedicated lab for meticulous device testing. “Microsoft provides decompression testing for devices that are used as EFBs,” he explains. “Rather than testing the devices myself, I get all the relevant results directly from Microsoft.”

Lighting the way
Screen brightness is a vital factor in an always-on cockpit environment. Pilots need a responsive, easily-adjustable screen to match fast-changing conditions. EFB data must be easily visible in bright sunlight or during the gloomy darkness of a night flight. “It’s really amazing to see the difference of the Surface Pro LTE screen in different light conditions,” Olsen states. “When you’re working with 2,500 pilots, you’ll always have extremes of opinion in what lighting level works best, so the ease of adjusting the screen is essential.”

Beyond brightness, another important screen factor is its sensitivity and accuracy. Crews use Surface Pro with LTE Advanced in tablet mode, so touch sensitivity is paramount, and Norwegian Air Shuttle calibrates screen sensitivity on devices every two to three months. Unlike previous devices, Olsen finds that the touch sensitivity of the Surface Pro with LTE Advanced doesn’t fade over time—an important factor for crews who may be flying in turbulent weather and require instant screen responsiveness without taking time to recalibrate or repeat an action when every second counts.

Johan Gauermann, Deputy Director of Flight Operations at Norwegian Air Shuttle states that “Our team of pilots really appreciate the value of our EFB Application in combination with the global LTE Connectivity of the Surface Devices. We train thousands of pilots, and they become effective Surface users quickly. The bright display at high altitudes and responsive touch screen work for everyone.”

Synchronising EFBs around the world
Ensuring that all devices around the world are updated is also extremely important. The Norwegian team is working to perfect the next advancement in its device strategy—using Windows Autopilot Deployment to load Windows 10 and manage updates with self-service provisioning. Olsen looks forward to shipping Surface Pro with LTE Advanced devices around the globe, using Windows Autopilot to ensure that each device is configured to his exact specifications. “We’re taking our EFB provisioning to a new level with the possibilities we see in current Microsoft solutions,” he says. “Wherever I send the device, I can be sure that through the Intune portal and Windows Autopilot, it will be set up exactly as we want: all the settings, eSIM profiles, and software.”

With hundreds of planes to provision with EFB devices and the requirements for consistently high performance, Norwegian Air Shuttle puts a premium on reliability. Olsen looks for well-made devices that will last, and he doesn’t compromise on performance. The capabilities of Surface Pro with LTE Advanced was, according to him, the icing on the cake:

“We tested devices that were far more expensive,” he describes. “Price isn’t an issue for the right device. Only one device provided the best value—the performance we need at a reasonable cost that ticked every box on the list, plus LTE. We anticipate a huge benefit within the next year when our entire fleet is equipped with Surface Pro LTE.”

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