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Would you fly if jet mechanics used paper charts?

The other day, I was sitting in O’Hare International when I learned my plane was delayed. To take my mind off the prospect of arriving later than I’d planned, I watched the mechanics that were crawling over the plane outside the window.

I wondered, has the plane been burning oil? If a warning light is not working, when was the last time it failed? How recently were the hydraulics checked? Since the American Super 80’s that I was looking at are older than many of the passengers who were waiting to board, I suspected there was a rich history on this particular airplane.

Do you suppose that in the front of the plane somewhere, there is a file folder with this wealth of maintenance information enshrined within? If there is, what are the odds that all the mechanics who worked on the plane in all of the airports it visits looked through the paperwork and updated it properly, with every notation in the right location for the next mechanic to read?

And I’m about to get on this plane? If that were the way the maintenance records worked, would I be the only one nervous about getting on the plane?

And what about trends, I wondered. Has this particular warning light been going out a lot across lots of different Super 80’s? Has some mechanic figured out how to fix it?

If all of the mechanic’s data really was in a file folder – there’s no practical way to look for trends. Common malfunctions would be an opportunity for every mechanic to make a brand new discovery. How exciting! (Unless of course you’re a passenger).

Fortunately, there’s an entire industry of aviation maintenance software.  They may not call it an EPR (Electronic Plane Record) but the software lets mechanics assess the history of individual planes and document the maintenance they perform. Hopefully, it also lets mechanics data mine to look for trends – are all of the planes from this model number suffering from the same warning light problem? What should they do the next time the plane goes in for a tune-up? What’s about to wear out, based on hours flown and similar planes’ histories?


I’ll close with this thought: Isn’t it curious that we would never tolerate a paper-based airline? Not only maintenance but the entire process – how badly do you want to return to the days of phone-based airline reservations? The fact is, we wouldn’t fly a paper-based airline today, no matter how cheap.

The analogy to Electronic Health Records may be obvious but it’s worth stating out loud. Amid the recent buzz about a Health Affairs study that found EHRs did not reduce imaging costs (read Steve Shaha’s response to the study here), it’s worth reminding everyone that even the authors of the study are sold on EHRs.  In fact, lead author Dr. Danny McCormick told Steve Lohr of the New York Times that he “would never go back” to paper charts in his own practice.  

I assume Dr. McCormick likes his medical care as safe as the friendly skies.

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