Podcasts

#15 From Flight Ops to EFBs: Brian Gleason’s Aviation Journey

About This Episode

In this episode of The Jump Seat, Chris Glass sits down with Brian Gleason, an aviation industry veteran with a rich background in operations engineering. Brian shares his journey from his early days at Boeing, through his groundbreaking work on electronic flight bags (EFB) at FedEx, to his current role at Southwest Airlines. They discuss the differences between cargo and passenger airline operations, the evolution of EFB technology, and the future of real-time data integration in aviation. Brian also touches on the challenges and opportunities presented by cybersecurity in the aviation industry and shares his favorite travel destinations.

Podcast Transcript

Chris Glass: Welcome to another great episode of the Jump Seat. We are here in Phoenix, Arizona, and I am with Brian Gleeson. Brian, welcome to the Jump Seat.

Brian Gleason: Thank you, happy to be here.

Chris Glass: So let’s start off by you giving me a little bit about your background.

Brian Gleason: Well, I have been in the operations engineering business or flight ops engineering business my whole career. Was fortunate enough to start my career off at Boeing and spend a little bit of time there in the flight ops engineering group up in Seattle Right and from there spent some time down at FedEx and worked for a very talented group of engineers there where we started inventing something that’s since become known as an EFB. At the time that term didn’t exist, nor did anybody know what an electronic flight bag was, but we kind of started that there at FedEx and I’ve been kind of involved in that space ever since Currently now at Southwest for 27 years 27 years.

Brian Gleason: And lead our ops engineering group there, and one of the things that we’re doing is developing kind of that next generation of aircraft performance application for the EFB, in addition to kind of oversight of all aircraft performance-related things but also aircraft communications Right. So it’s been a fun ride. There’s definitely been a lot of things that we’ve learned along the way too.

Chris Glass: So what got you started in aviation? I’m always fascinated with people who have spent their year, myself included, attached to aviation for their whole adult lives, and they’ve always started with something small and then never, never really left it because it gets in your blood. So what was your genesis? What was your start?

Brian Gleason: Well, I really had. My goal in life was to be a pilot.

Chris Glass: Okay, right, so aviation was always a goal.

Brian Gleason: So aviation was always a goal. My dad had his private pilot’s license and we would go on summer vacations flying, you know, halfway across the country.

Chris Glass: Right.

Brian Gleason: In a Piper Warrior and, you know, going to visit relatives that were scattered here and there. And so you know I was at a very young age did that. So I always enjoyed that, certainly had aspirations to become a pilot and actually went into Air Force pilot training, although unfortunately summers in Oklahoma and a T-37 didn’t all exactly come together as my body might have liked Right. But you know, fortunately had the, the aero engineering degree kind of as the backup there. So and that’s what I ended up doing.

Chris Glass: Okay, and then you went to FedEx first.

Brian Gleason: And I actually started out at Boeing first. Boeing first, sorry, yes, yes yes, started out at Boeing in their like I said, in their flat ops engineering group developing takeoff and landing software for the airlines to use. And, yeah, from there transitioned to Memphis and became a part of that operation for a few years.

Chris Glass: How does the operation with FedEx differ from a scheduled carrier, a passenger carrier? You know you’re still moving something.

Brian Gleason: Yes.

Chris Glass: So what’s the big differences between the two, since you’ve been on both sides of the coin?

Brian Gleason: There’s, you know, a little bit different perspective. Right, when you’re in the cargo business, you know you’re probably carrying, you know, thousands of customers worth of you know, product in there.

Brian Gleason: So you’ve got. You know, say, a thousand people ship something, a thousand people receiving there. So you’ve got, say, a thousand people shipped something, a thousand people receiving something. So every flight there’s a lot of people that are depending on that flight. Certainly, in the airline business not quite the same, because if our airplane only holds 175 people, that’s kind of the primary target there. But you do things a little bit differently too, right? Package doesn’t really care. Is it a non-stop flight from here to there? Do I have to stop four times before I get there? It really doesn’t care.

Brian Gleason: Like our, like our human customer does yeah right and so and so there are definitely some different unique challenges there. You know, certainly in the in the cargo cargo side of it you you are much more focused on a hub and spoke type of operation right, just from a package sorting and distribution standpoint.

Chris Glass: Everything into Memphis, everything out.

Brian Gleason: Right right, whereas you know, certainly in Southwest business model you know we don’t have a traditional hub and spoke type of operation. We were built off a point to point, going from point A to point B, do we have stations that kind of look like hubs? It’s unavoidable. Right. I mean, you know Phoenix here is an example. We probably have 250 flights a day through here. Wow, Right. So we do have a lot of people that do connect through here, but we also have a lot of people that this is their destination too, right.

Chris Glass: Right.

Brian Gleason: And so we have to find kind of the right balance of what the customer is looking for in terms of building out the schedule and making the connections and things like that. So it’s yeah, it is a little bit different, you know, with you know customers, you hate to say it, but you got a little bit more kind of leeway in how you can maybe get people from one point to another right, which is kind of one of the benefits to how our network is constructed right. So for some reason an airplane breaks, we can probably find you 12 other ways to get to where you want to go that day, Right, If you weren’t able to get onto the one. Um, you know, in the in the cargo side of it a little, a little tougher to do that yeah, right, and so it does make it more of a challenge so yeah, it’s just.

Brian Gleason: It’s been interesting from that standpoint that, yeah, there’s definitely different perspectives on. You have the same asset, an airplane right, you know it’s got the same basic avionics, runs the same, same pilots but same pilots, but you’re executing on a slightly different mission.

Chris Glass: One of the things. I was looking at your resume before you came in and you’ve mentioned it a couple of times. But let’s talk about EFBs, or electronic flight bags. You were one of the pioneers of this, so walk me through. I believe it was 97 when Southwest introduced it.

Brian Gleason: So Southwest introduced it in 97, but it was actually the team of engineers at FedEx which Ken Hurley is a name that I think a lot of people know in that space. And in my opinion he was kind of the godfather of the whole thing, and that was part of the reasons why I went to FedEx was to help develop that program.

Chris Glass: You saw where it was going.

Brian Gleason: Well, yeah, it was. I mean, that was, it was brand new, nobody was doing anything like that. But you know, the thought of putting some sort of computing device on the cockpit, in the cockpit, for the pilots to do kind of real-time calculations, which you know gets you more payload capability, you know gets you better engine maintenance in terms of, you know, more reduced thrust capability, better situational awareness in terms of some of the numbers that you can present to the pilots and how you can present it, I mean it was really a leap forward because up until that point, I mean, everybody was basically using paper product right? You’d pre-run takeoff data in a tabular format and then you’d have to teach them how to chase around the charts and make adjustments and things like that.

Brian Gleason: And so, you know, we basically developed for the whole fleet there, you know, a DOS-based application that had a GUI interface that you can navigate with a cursor and go through. But it did the job. But it was interesting times because we were also, you know, having to work closely with the FAA in terms of how do you get this thing approved to use in the flight deck, right?

Brian Gleason: It’s not really a piece of avionics, it’s not attached to the airplane, you know. Yet we had we actually had a lock storage box that we would use for this thing. The computer that we were using actually could run on double a batteries, and so that’s what we used in the fedex cockpit was. I mean, you’d had this lock boxbox with your computer that’s in there and an extra set of AA batteries so if they ran out you could throw those in there and keep on going.

Chris Glass: I look at the time frame that we’re talking and you think that iPads and tablets have been around forever and they really haven’t. That’s like a 2008 kind of timeline, so the equipment you must have been working with back then must have been really cutting edge at the time, but something we’d consider pretty archaic today oh yeah, absolutely, you know, I mean it’s.

Brian Gleason: You know the? The original thing that was used at fedex was when they introduced the md-11 there. It started off with a laptop to do aircraft performance and I got. When I arrived at fedex I don’t remember how many we had. I remember I went out to help take delivery of the fifth one, though.

Chris Glass: So you know they weren’t very far into the fleet at that point.

Brian Gleason: And I was actually fortunate enough to as we introduced the Airbus fleet into FedEx, both the A300 and the A310. So really kind of in the early stages of some of that. But yeah, it was pretty interesting being able to develop all that and it was kind of a laptop-based thing.

Brian Gleason: But that group of engineers, what FedEx allowed us to do was kind of go off and start a side business to build this application for other operators right and and we basically, you know, worked and said, hey, as long as we’re not using it, you know, for people that are competing against FedEx right, and so that’s eventually how it ended up at Southwest was through that and so we’d kind of develop kind of the next generation of that right to get everything we learned from the first one, figure out better ways to do it, architect it, things like that. Of course, even back in those days we were still, you know, laugh a little bit about the uh, the computer sitting over here but trying to figure out how to make this work within the available memory right that you had in the computers and you got to play software games with memory swapping and and stuff like all things that you know.

Chris Glass: Going to going to school as an aero engineer never thought I would get involved in right for those of you who don’t understand what brian’s talking about, beside us here in our suite is an apple 2c which I believe came out in 1983. It’s operational. We have Spy Hunter and Donkey Kong up and running. That’s what we were working with back then. Oh yeah, exactly.

Brian Gleason: And so at Southwest, when we got to Southwest, we had kind of rewritten the application into more of a Windows-based application, right, and so at Southwest, southwest, what we introduced it on was a tablet computer, and again, that’s kind of in the early days of the tablets but it was a fujitsu stylistic 1000 was the uh was the original one that um, we implemented there and even back then you still had, I think. I think the early version, which we waited until the next version came out.

Brian Gleason: The early version was still just a black and white right and again it was to help conserve battery and all those types of things, and it wasn’t until, I think, the first version that we did, or the second version we did they finally came out with a color version of that right, and this is in the late 90s Wow which you know all in all doesn’t seem that long ago Still ahead of the iPad.

Chris Glass: Right, because we were still in Palm Pilot territory. Blackberry hadn’t even started to really take off at the time. So how does it stand now? Right, so we’ve come from those old DOS-based computer systems to where are we today.

Brian Gleason: Well, in terms of EFBs right, I mean, the introduction of the iPad and really the cost point of the iPad, right, is the thing that really allowed kind of the whole EFB genre to propel, explode, right, and it took a little bit to kind of figure out. You know, is it going to be iPad, is it going to be, you know, android based or something like that. And at the time you really still had very limited applications, right. The biggest thing that most of the flight crews are concerned about were their flight manuals, right, right, and so that was kind of the first major application that came along in in parallel with the performance applications that were already being developed out there, right, and so that was really kind of the starting point of that.

Brian Gleason: But now we’ve gotten to the point where, honestly, we’ve got so many different applications on the ipad that now we now we get the gripes from the pilots about we’ve got way too many different applications on the iPad, that now we get the gripes from the pilots about we’ve got way too many different applications. We need to figure out how to make it more streamlined, right, which, you know there’s some products out there that help do that. But I think that’s the sort of thing that every airline is kind of working through right now is okay, we need an application for your weather, we need an application for charge, we need an application to get our release, we need one for all of our documents, we need an application to sign in and trade trips, and on and on and on. Yeah, yeah.

Chris Glass: And then the move to add all those apps and then find something that can consolidate them all into one program is probably the next step of it is companies to do that.

Brian Gleason: Well, there is a lot of that and that’s part of what some of the certainly the spec work that’s happening within AWC right is to help facilitate that transition and, even if it’s not necessarily consolidate everything into a single app, it’s a. You know, hey, if I’ve got to put information in for a flight, I should do it one time and have all of the applications, you know, automatically pick it up, right.

Brian Gleason: This is, I’m on flight one, two, three from Dallas to Phoenix and you know, if I open my weather, it already knows that If I’m opening my charts, it already knows that it’s already kind of preloaded and pre-populated and then you don’t have as much, you know, pushing around and buttons and just trying to get set up for your flight.

Chris Glass: Of course, originally we started with just getting that flight bag, that giant manual that was this big out. Get it out of the way and get that automated. What’s the future look like?

Brian Gleason: Well, there’s definitely more opportunities, right, and even in Southwest Journey right now, we’re trying to get to that step of being totally paperless. Right, we’re not there yet, and so a lot of it is just getting that infrastructure, getting the applications built in, and a lot of it’s not necessarily just the applications on that are resident on the iPad.

Brian Gleason: right, you’ve got to do work on the ground side of it to make sure, as an example, you know, your flight planning system is going to be able to generate a release that gets you know delivered to the right device at the right time and the right the right crew and the right in the right airplane, um and so those are really the the big things that, as an example, we’re working on now. You, you know, some airlines have transitioned already into the e-logbook right or tech logbook electronically.

Brian Gleason: We’re not there yet, right, but that’s kind of for us one of those next things down the road that, as we start to, you know, try and get rid of less and less paper and become much more efficient in our operation, and that’s really ultimately the goal. Right is to become more efficient, to reduce time, you know, not only during the flight and make it easier for the flight crew, but also to improve our utilization of the airplanes. Right, If we take more time on the ground, well, we don’t make money.

Chris Glass: Nobody makes money on the ground.

Brian Gleason: You don’t make money with an airplane sitting at the gate. Right, Right, You’ve got to get it to keep moving, and that’s always been the kind of Southwest basic plan right.

Chris Glass: It’s always been in your ethos to get the plane off the ground as fast as you can. Yes, yes, and get it turned as quickly as possible I heard uh that there used to be uh 10 minute turns back in your day, so at southwest.

Brian Gleason: So they did make that happen at one time that’s pretty impressive yeah, yeah, that was an interesting story actually, uh, because we we had four airplanes and we we had to basically give one back, and so we were trying to run the same schedule with three airplanes With three instead of four. Yes, and that was the way to do it Now, granted the 10-minute turn. Back then there were also not quite the same number of regulations that we have today?

Chris Glass: No, not at all.

Brian Gleason: Right, so back then you could close the door and start pushing back, even though people weren’t in their seats yet. Right Today, we wouldn’t even think of doing that. No, yeah, definitely.

Chris Glass: And you know it’s funny the turn process has been under such battles from the marketing sides of our airlines. You know, adding extra fees for bags I know that’s not a thing Southwest does, but in-flight entertainment and then when you start adding different fare classes and when people book ahead of time, there’s no urgency for people to go on the plane quickly when they already know they have the aisle seat or the window seat. So they move a lot slower. And you know we’re making money on the marketing side but we’re losing it on the operation side. So it’s trying to find that happy balance between turning a plane quickly and commercializing it.

Brian Gleason: The best way, so it’s always that pull.

Chris Glass: One thing that I know we’re working on we have a sensor that I believe some Southwest aircraft have but the WVSS sensor, to look at contrail avoidance and that eventually is going to make its way into the EFB as we start seeing, maybe, regulations around climate change and you know, I’m certain it would start in Europe and then, make its way over here, but that’s something that we’re pretty excited about seeing eventually getting into the EFB world as well.

Brian Gleason: No, absolutely, and we’ve been fortunate enough to be kind of participating in that water vapor sensor program for a long time now and, yeah, it’s got some great data in it and there’s a lot of work going on that we’re involved in and trying to help, you know, validate not only the accuracy of it but its usefulness in helping to predict potential, you know, contrail producing atmospheric conditions right, and kind of measuring that, and so, yeah, we’ve got, you know, roughly 100 airplanes that are equipped with that and we continue to work with our partners in looking at as we’re, you know, we’ve got them installed on some of our older aircraft that are retiring, but we’re trying to work towards moving, though, on some of our older aircraft that are retiring, but we’re trying to to work towards moving though and update the STC so we can put them on the, the newer max aircraft, so we can kind of keep that program going was actually kind of interesting because one of the things articles that had come out during the COVID years right, the three years that we all forgot about right- was was the fact that some of the weather forecasting probably wasn’t as good at that time because yeah, because the airplanes that had all these weren’t flying as often right, right, so you didn’t have the same data source available

Brian Gleason: so that was. That was kind of a fun little uh side story of of. You know didn’t help us out, but it just kind of showed the impact that that aviation has. Things as mundane as the guy standing on the TV giving the weather report and you realize that your airline’s helping to funnel the data and information that they’re getting to make these predictions and try to keep everyone safe in that regard.

Chris Glass: So do you see EFB culture, the world of EFB, moving towards more real-time information for pilots to make decisions in flight when it comes to, maybe, turbulence avoidance or weather avoidance or contrail avoidance. Is that?

Brian Gleason: Yeah, and that’s really where the EFB world’s going now. Right, I mean, initially it was set up as a document replacement device. Right, it’s really to replace paper. You know something that you’re you know, if I’ve got a weekly update cycle or a monthly update cycle, whatever it is, I can have it available here. But that’s really where the future is is these real-time information decision-making tools. You know you’re looking at things like flight optimization, right, which is another kind of big thing right now in terms of trying to look at how can we operate more efficiently, whether it’s to save fuel, to save time but you need real-time information to be able to make those so, so to be able to get that information to the efb. That includes, you know, accurate weather data in a 4d model, right, right, traffic information you know where were the, the places where we’ve got traffic issues or not that that help funnel into that decision making process and process and then being able to provide some intelligent options to the flight crew to say, okay, this is.

Chris Glass: In time for them to actually make the adjustment.

Brian Gleason: Yeah, well and it’s real-time information, right, because you know that’s going to be the best information that you have, that you can then make the adjustments that you need to to complete the the mission. However, you know your company is deemed that you need to at the time. Right, it’s right. You know sometimes it’s to save.

Brian Gleason: If we’re going to get there early, then slow down and save gas, right if we’re running really late, then maybe it makes more sense today to trade that off and right and and and speed up and that’s a hard calculation to do on the fly.

Chris Glass: we really need to have that done by some automated process, so that actionable intelligence piece to say, hey, slow down, speed up, change levels, change altitude, that kind of thing.

Brian Gleason: And look at all and consider all the variables that go into that right, Because there are a lot of parameters that go into those kinds of decisions. A lot of people like to just break it down Well, should I speed up or slow down? It’s like. Well, I don’t know, it depends.

Brian Gleason: That’s a standard engineering answer? It depends. But you know, you really have to look at all the different factors that are pushing you one way or another. And yeah, it takes a little bit of artificial intelligence sometimes to kind of put all that together and say, okay, here’s going to be the best course of action and everybody is good with that, since I’ve been doing this podcast, this issue has come up quite a bit, and I think it’s important to bring it up in this conversation.

Chris Glass: With the world going that direction, cybersecurity is such a huge part of it. So how has that affected the AFP world, with just the increased level of threats out there not in the aviation world, but just in our day-to-day world, with hackers being able to access information so easily and so quickly? And how do we secure our skies from the same problems we’re having on the ground?

Brian Gleason: do we secure our skies from the same problems we’re having on the ground.

Brian Gleason: Well that’s really where a lot of the activity comes in from AAC, right, because you’ve got various groups that are looking at the cybersecurity aspect of all things. Now. You know it started off pretty small initially but certainly, as you know, the regulators have gotten more involved and are starting to dictate that you need to apply cybersecurity practices to just about everything that you do Not always easily adaptable into the architecture of the airplane as it exists today. Ways the 737 is is a lot easier because it’s such a old, you know federated technology that that that you know it doesn’t have things like ethernet, that that most of the hackers understand right right, so so it’s you know, certainly, as the airplanes get more sophisticated, you see more and more of that and, yeah, you do have to take that into account.

Brian Gleason: You know, even just in the simple efb type of things, right, we’ve got security protocols wrapped up in terms of, you know, vpn connections and you know, signed documents and all of those types of things that we’ve had to incorporate over the years. All is new requirements, but, you know, all for the best, really it’s. It is really to prevent anybody from getting in there and, nefariously or otherwise, trying to trying to impact a flight in a negative manner.

Chris Glass: Yeah right, I had a conversation with a gentleman named lauren sugarman a couple of podcasts ago and and he was talking about blockchain technology and bringing that into e-tech logs and maintenance sign-off and storing the actual signatures in the blockchain, if that makes sense. So has that come up at any of the forums yet, or is that? A little bit too far down the roadmap.

Brian Gleason: It’s probably a little bit too far right now. I mean, I know folks are kind of talking about it, right, and that’s one of the things that is good about the AWEC, right, because we’re really in the spec writing business and from my viewpoint, that’s one of the things that we would we have to always be looking forward to, right, in terms of what’s coming next and what do we need to prepare for. Yeah, and things like that not not trying not to be so reactionary, although at times we find ourselves in that, in that role too but but yeah, obviously things like this are always going to continue to evolve and change and just trying to stay ahead of it. And we’ve, you know, we’ve had some good conversation here this week, kind of around that. In fact, we just got done with a kind of a cybersecurity and software data loading seminar in AWC. But, yeah, it’s definitely there’s a lot more work being done now, a lot more smart people that are working on it, you know, to make sure that we keep the airlines safe and the public safe.

Chris Glass: Well, and as airlines become more and more flying computers, it’s going to just be something we’re always going to have to face.

Brian Gleason: It is, we will always have to face it, and it will get more complex, whether we like it or not, right? And so we’ll just have to figure out how to navigate through it.

Chris Glass: So we’re almost done for time, because I know I’ve got to get you back to the conference itself here, because you play a big role here. But one thing I’m asking every person, because this is a aviation podcast and I like to travel and I need more destinations on my bucket list here. So where’s your favorite place to go? With all of this flight benefits that you’ve had in your career, you must have seen the globe, so what is the one place that I should go next?

Brian Gleason: Well, I do like to travel and in fact, these meetings have afforded me the opportunity to go to some pretty neat places around the world. Right For me. Personally, I like the Hawaiian Islands to get away and relax.

Chris Glass: What’s your favorite island?

Brian Gleason: Maui is my favorite island yeah. Just with the variety of things that you can do there. And again, I grew up on the West Coast and there that’s kind of where you went for vacation, right, you know, when you wanted to get away was out there and and so, yeah, we would, we would go out there and spend a couple weeks there and just always just find it very relaxing and you don’t have to tell me to go to Hawaii, that’s one of my already there you go. All right, I’ve been there quite a bit.

Chris Glass: I’m a wahoo man myself because I like the mix between the busy city and then the North shore, where you could take a couple of days and fall off the grid, and watch some surfing and see some turtles. So, great minds think alike, I guess, and thank you so much for spending some time with us. I know you’re so busy today, so I really appreciate it. I’m going to get you back to the conference and we’re going to be back here with more great guests here on the jump seat here in Phoenix, arizona. Thank you.

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