Windows 8 Tablets On A Plane: Emirates Airlines Takes Microsoft, HP Into Real Clouds

Using tablet tech to go way beyond mere beverage service, here Emirates execs discuss flying with open Windows.

Patrick Brannelly is the Vice President Corporate Communications Product, Publishing, Digital and Events and Kevin Griffiths is the SVP of Cabin Crew at Emirates Airlines. As Emirates announces a partnership with Microsoft and HP to bring Windows 8 devices on board its flights in 2013, we caught up with them (on the ground) to learn more about the many challenges of being a flight attendant--peanuts are only part of it--and how tablet computing can make the job easier.

FAST COMPANY: On Emirates flights, the “purser,” or chief crew member, will be using a Windows 8 app on an HP ElitePad 900. How will this app help the purser?

PATRICK BRANNELLY: On an Airbus A380, there’s about 25 cabin crew the purser is in charge of. Chances are, the purser’s only flown with three of them before. Then there’s 500 passengers. On a tablet, you can see an instant overview of the entire team, as well as all about the passengers--how many infants are on board; do any passengers have special needs or preferences; is this person’s favorite drink a gin and tonic? Imagine doing all that with paper--which we used to do. You would literally be carrying around a piece of paper about eight feet long. Now, with Windows 8, you can just touch a photograph of the crew and see what languages they speak. You can see who on the crew speaks Swahili, and dispatch the nearest one to the passenger who doesn’t understand English.

For those of us who don’t give it much thought, we maybe think that being a flight attendant just involves keeping people calm and handing out snacks.

KEVIN GRIFFITHS: On an Airbus A380, you’ve got 14 customers where you’re delivering to them highly personalized service at the levels of a private jet, including an a la carte fine dining experience. In business class, there’s over 70 customers where you’re trying to get a private restaurant type experience, more akin to a good bistro. Then you’ve got 400 customers in economy, where you’re trying to deliver the world’s best economy product. It’s akin to running three discrete restaurants at the same time. But in a typical restaurant, you’re working with the same team every day. Here you’re working with a team of 16,000 people, and you may be coming together with people you’ve never met before, or you’re not aware you’ve met before.

One thing we realized is that some people are good at remembering names, and some are good at remembering faces, but very few can do both. People often look at a list of crew names and not make the connection that they knew them before. Our new interface always shows both the names and photos of crew members. Sharing photos and names like that brings about much better teamwork.

For now it’s just the purser who’ll be sporting the ElitePad tablet. In the future, might all the crew members on Emirates have tablets or smartphones during the flight?

KG: At the moment, we’re just announcing the fact that we’ll be giving these to the purser. I think that’s the way the world is going, but there’s no decision yet.

PB: Aircraft are becoming more and more connected. Tablets and smartphones give airlines an ability to re-look at every aspect of the business; they’ve opened things up in a way that just a few years ago wasn’t conceivable. There’s an awful lot of things that we can improve by employing connected technologies on aircraft.

This interview has been condensed and edited. For more from the Fast Talk interview series, click here. Know someone who'd be a good Fast Talk subject? Mention it to David Zax.

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