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Monday, March 07, 2011, 06:05 am PT (09:05 am ET)

Commercial airlines look to Apple's iPad for paperless cockpits

With the Federal Aviation Administration granting early approval for the use of the iPad in airplane cockpits, major commercial airline companies like Delta are exploring the possibility of using Apple's touchscreen tablet to ditch paper maps entirely.

Delta Air Lines, the second-largest carrier in the world, is pursuing approval to test iPads and other tablet-style devices in its airline cockpits next quarter, a spokesman for the company told Bloomberg. The news comes just after the FAA endorsed the use of the iPad in a test project at Executive Jet Management.

The FAA began granting approval for "electronic flight bags," or computers for aviation use, in the last decade. But current options are bulky and heavy, with one aviation computer from Astronautics Corporation of America weighing 18 pounds. Apple's new iPad 2 weighs just 1.3 pounds.

On Feb. 1, the FAA granted the first approval for professional cockpit use of the iPad to Executive Jet Management. The Cincinnati-based company, owned by billionaire Warren Buffett's NetJets, made 250 flights as part of the certification process with maps and accessories created for the iPad by Boeing's aeronautical and charting company Jeppesen.

The FAA decision only applies, for now, to Buffett's company. But the report noted that "commercial carriers now have a template for winning permission for iPad use."

While Delta plans to begin exploring the use of the iPad next quarter, other major carriers like Alaska Airlines remain largely paper driven for charts. But the Alaska Air Group operation, with 116 aircraft, said it is already testing the iPad for some functions.

Officials with Jeppesen said they began developing iPad flight navigation software partially because pilots themselves requested it. The company said it plans to release similar software for tablets running the Google Android mobile operating system.