During the month of June, AeroTime has explored numerous new innovations devised by the airline industry to make aviation sustainability a possibility. We’ve looked at all sorts of initiatives, including hydrogen development for airport infrastructure and test flights using Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF), as well as upcycling old leather aircraft seat covers into bags. 

This time, AeroTime explores how digitizing paper systems can help achieve aviation sustainability and also enhance flight safety. We talked to Karl Steeves, CEO of TrustFlight, a UK-based digital technology innovator founded by two commercial pilots which is taking airlines from paper to digital. 

What is the concept behind TrustFlight ?

Most airlines of the world, from American and Delta to British Airways and AirAsia, all still use paper records. We're talking boxes and boxes of this stuff. A Boeing 737, for instance, generates about 7,300 pieces of paper per year, and the captain has to physically sign off about 25 times before the flight can push back. Trustflight is working on a suite of tools to make all these carbonized paper logs digitized into iPad solutions.

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Screen demo of TrustFlight’s digitized solutions. Image supplied by TrustFlight

You use an iPad or iPhone to book a flight or order a meal, we're all used to it. And the navigation planning is also mostly done by iPad nowadays. So, why not the sign-offs for the flight and the engines? Trustflight is making it go digital. We’ve signed up airlines like FlyBe and Flair Airlines, with a new airline being announced next week.

It seems like airlines’ current paper-based processes can be time and energy consuming. Being a commercial pilot yourself, can you tell us more about this?

When a captain wants to fly a Boeing 737 from Boston to Miami, or anywhere in the world, about 25 signatures are required from the captain just to push back the airline from the gate. 

Have you ever been on a plane where the captain announces a delay and says, ‘we're just waiting on some paperwork?’ That's what they are talking about. How much fuel is on board, how much oil. What is the engine time and does that match with the on-board computer? Is the coffee maker broken? (the captain has to sign off so that she shows she understands that the coffee maker is broken). Are the times logged for the engine correct? Twenty-five signatures. Every. Single. Flight. 

In fact, five sheets of carbon paper are used for every flight, about 7,300 per year for the average 737. One sheet stays with the plane. How much does that weigh over the course of a year? One sheet goes to maintenance. One sheet goes to a storage unit. Another sheet is kept for the regulator to see it. Why all this paper? It's not 1993. How much cost to an airline to store paper records that nobody will ever see? And the worst part is that the outstations have to ship back paper to the main office every week. 

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Box of aircraft paperwork that sits in an airline’s main office. Photo supplied by TrustFlight.

On top of simplifying the process, you mentioned that TrustFlight also enhances safety. Can you tell us more about that?

There's the safety element, because pilots regularly don't do the right math for block time/engine time, and spell things wrong. For instance, there’s a misspelled word like ‘Coffe maker’ on the log book sheet. It's on there, spelled wrong. Who cares? Well, that grammar error has to be replicated exactly as written in the maintenance system for the airline. The airline is NOT permitted to fix the spelling error. 

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Sample of a paper log with a simple misspelling that can lead to errors. Photo supplied by TrustFlight

So that means if the tech team wants to see how many times the coffee maker has broken, they can't really easily look it up. It might be spelled ‘Coffee’, or ‘Coffe’. 

Broken coffee maker? Sign. Issue with the plane? Too busy, sign it. There's no good way to flag for the pilot something that is really important; more important than a coffee maker.

Also, when you buy a new airplane, it comes with engines! Those engines have extensive log books when delivered, and they are all paper-based. Even when you buy a brand new Rolls Royce or P&W or GE engine, all of the paperwork, and there are hundreds of pages of it, are delivered on paper. Crazy. So, you spend $20 million on new engines, you get a binder with paper records. 

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Sample of a paper technical report. Image supplied by TrustFlight

Apart from saving on paper, resources and the safety aspect, are there other advantages in using TrustFlight? How is it different from other similar software providers?

There are significant cost savings from reducing delays due to paperwork/processes and also all of the manual work associated with processing paper log pages. 

We also provide a clear real-time status on aircraft update to all involved (pilots, engineers, ops and maintenance teams) which is currently difficult to see. 

We are different from other providers in that we focus a lot on providing a simple and well designed interface as well as interfacing with as many other existing systems as possible to reduce duplication of data. Both of these factors provide better quality of data, increased safety and make it a much easier system to implement.

Now that post-pandemic travel is back, is there increased interest from airlines in adopting TrustFlight?

Yes, we have seen a considerable uptake in interest post-pandemic as airlines recognise the need to have digital systems to save cost and also operate more dynamically (a lot struggled with work from home mandates, for example).

What could be the reasons why an airline would be hesitant in digitizing its paperwork? Two years ago, AeroTime featured a company called Fingermind, whose focus is digitizing aeronautical maintenance. Back in 2020, they mentioned that one of the challenges is that the aviation industry still lacks digital-friendly regulations. Do you find this to be the case as well?

I wouldn’t say the regulations themselves are a large issue, however the regulators that interpret them are. Often, regulators are not familiar with new technologies so we have to educate them on why they are beneficial. 

Aside from regulators, I would say there is cultural aversion to change within the aviation industry more generally that must be overcome. That’s why we put a lot of effort into making systems simple and easy to use. 

A similar comparison can be made with analogue vs digital flight decks. Initially, digital flight decks were viewed with skepticism but now the safety benefits are clear.

When an airline becomes a client, how is TrustFlight implemented? Do you install the software, and also train them? Do you also install the thick wordy manuals that come with the engines?

Our system is entirely cloud-based, so typically for a new airline we will configure it for their fleet and then provide them with training, new procedures and other supporting documents for the change process such as risk assessments. 

Initial use of the system will usually be in parallel during which time we monitor various KPIs to ensure the system is working well after which the airline can become paperless subject to approval from their authority. Usually this process can be completed in three to six months. 

We don’t digitize manuals per se, but certain parts of the system such as our Minimum Equipment List (MEL) workflows replace traditional manuals carried on aircraft.

Achieving aviation sustainability is an ongoing, combined effort from all industry innovators. 

On its own, digitizing paperwork in flights may not be the solution to sustainable aviation. But it can definitely play a big factor, especially when you take into consideration the safety aspect, which is just as important as sustainability.