Air Canada pilots wireless LAN tools

When Air Canada mechanics maintain and repair airplanes, they often need to refer to manuals that cannot easily be taken into the hangars.

They currently look up information by either walking over to computers and typing in queries,

picking up the phone and calling someone who has the manual, sending faxes or physically looking through manuals. They often have to look through 10 different sources in order to get the information they need.

Airline officials are thinking of changing this by giving mechanics at major facilities tablet PCs or ruggedized notebooks equipped with wireless local-area network (LAN) cards. The company’s main contractor, IBM, recently concluded a wireless LAN trial — dubbed e-Toolbox — at the carrier’s repair facility at Montreal’s Dorval airport.

“”We needed to help our mechanics by putting information at their fingertips — real-time data or as close to real time data as possible, and put it closer to the aircraft, close to the event,”” said Bob Eardley, senior director for transformation solutions at Air Canada’s IT group. “”We really saw a benefit in the pilot approach — getting something out there fast. It may not be perfect, but getting it out fast and letting real folks touch it and use it.””

IBM installed 802.11b-compliant wireless LAN access points (which deliver 11 Mbps data transfer rates) manufactured by Cisco Systems Inc. at the Dorval facility last March. Air Canada borrowed several devices, including tablet PCs, notebooks and personal digital assistants, from various manufacturers. Eardley did not want to cite specific models because Air Canada has not decided which devices would be used in the event of a production rollout. He did say mechanics prefer tablet PCs or ruggedized notebooks over PDAs because many transactions require a signature.

The wireless LAN access points are still in place at Dorval, but Air Canada has given the devices back to the manufacturers. The company’s IT and repair departments learned some useful information during the trial about choosing sites for access points.

“”It’s one thing to look at a hangar when it’s empty,”” Eardley said. “”You say, ‘Let’s put one in the corner and one in the other corner.’ And then you park a 747, and put the scaffolding up, and the mechanic takes his devices, buries it under a wing, and you say, ‘Oh, I never thought of that.'””

He said mechanics working inside the tail sections of Airbuses often have to download information more than once because the signal doesn’t penetrate the composite airframe very well.

Eardley added it gets even more complicated outside the hangars, where ground power units and other airplanes get between mechanics and the access points.

Air Canada officials will decide whether they want to proceed with wireless LANs at facilities after they examine a return-on-investment analysis.

“”Obviously, this thing will not move forward unless there’s a quick payback,”” Eardley said, adding the benefits include saving mechanics time and avoiding flight cancellations by getting airplanes repaired more quickly.

Air Canada is not publicizing the estimated cost of the project, but Eardley suggested it will not be cheap.

“”Every time you hear ‘wireless,’ everyone thinks it must be the cheapest solution – there are no wires – but it’s not quite the same as a cell phone,”” Eardley noted. “”It’s not as simple when you’re putting in your own proprietary infrastructure, so quite frankly, when we roll out e-Toolbox, we will be very very selective when we actually implement it in a wireless environment.””

Although Air Canada has some maintenance facilities at every airport that it serves, it will only install wireless LANs at major locations, such as Toronto, Dorval, Vancouver and possibly London’s Heathrow airport.

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