This blog post originally appeared as an article in the Aug/Sep 2015 issue of the AircraftIT Ops eJournal.
Flight Ops – a publishing anomaly in an otherwise vanguard industry
The requirement for the safe, efficient maintenance and operation of complex assets like jet aircraft has been a catalyst for innovation in aviation technical publishing for decades, driving the adoption of structured content authoring and revision management capabilities many years in advance of other industries or publishing domains. Aviation pioneered the use of markup languages for data exchange years in advance of the World Wide Web.However, as a publishing niche within aviation, Flight Operations has been a technology and process backwater that has failed to adopt many of the innovations used in maintenance and technical operations publishing.
Where aviation maintenance and engineering have embraced SGML and XML authoring and revision management, the vast majority of Flight Operations publishing teams have continued to rely on antiquated authoring tools, ad hoc workflow processes, and labor-intensive revision management practices. Some signs indicate that this may be in the process of changing at long last.
Catalysts and benefits of standardization
The fact that Flight Ops content was authored using tools that would only output to ‘dumb’ PDFs ironically made it ideal as a first adopter for use with iPads in aviation thanks to its simplicity. The first iPad deployments in the cockpit were essentially using glorified PDF readers that dramatically improved access to Flight Ops content while highlighting some of the shortcomings of its production. Unlike lightweight XML-based documents that can often be rendered as styled, componentized HTML, Flight Ops PDFs rendered from MS Word or Framemaker source files are often bulky, reflecting book and chapterbased paradigms that often meant document sizes of 100s of megabytes, a challenge for environments where mobile networks are spotty.
As maintenance applications have taken the mobility momentum into the brave new world of XML, and as the first signs of Spec 2300 content are beginning to appear from OEMs in the field, it may at long last be time for Flight Operations to move into the technical publishing mainstream through full adoption of XML.
Compared to XHTML, PDFs are also not very interactive, with less capability for internal and external hyperlinking than XML-authored documents, and a focus on print optimization that is not relevant in what is an increasingly mobile, digital-first workplace. As maintenance applications have taken the mobility momentum into the brave new world of XML, and as the first signs of Spec 2300 content are beginning to appear from OEMs in the field, it may at long last be time for Flight Operations to move into the technical publishing mainstream through full adoption of XML. Some of the immediate benefits that are achievable through a common publishing process and toolset across domains like Flight Ops and maintenance include:
- Improved accuracy and lower cost per publication: Through the ability to link and adapt reusable component content to facilitate faster, more accurate and automated updates and reduced rates of error.
- Multi-source revision processing capabilities: Maintenance has provided a workable model for automated XML / SGML revision processing schemes that automate reconciliation of concurrent edits from multiple sources (including OEMs, internal subject matter experts, and regulators). The increased up-front ‘cost’ associated with authoring in XML is typically repaid with dividends through simplification of this type of multi-source revision processing.
- IT maintenance and administration savings: Ability to manage structured flight ops content in the same repository as maintenance, technical operations / engineering, and other technical information for greater authoring efficiency (all manuals are authored using future-friendly, reusable XML) and lower IT costs.
Change is coming
Reports of the death of MS Word or Adobe Framemaker in the Flight Ops technical publishing department have been greatly exaggerated on more than one occasion. However, advances in our understanding and acceptance of mobile delivery and viewing as well as the apparent (albeit slow) embrace of Spec 2300 by OEMs have created an environment where it’s possible to envision greater harmonization in tools and processes than has been possible in the past. Standardizing the production of Flight Ops documentation to leverage the same XML and SGML-based tools used in maintenance and technical operations is an idea whose time has come. Through adoption of mobile XML in maintenance, the benefits are now well-understood while the costs of adoption — thanks in part to technology standardization and reuse — have fallen to the point where mainstream uptake seems inevitable… That’s how it seems in the world according to IT… & me!