Flying Airplanes — or Documents?

I met a few months back with one of our customers in aviation to discuss how MarkLogic could help his airline with flight documentation. During the meeting, I learned that flight documentation is (yet another) example of a custom publishing system — but one that’s about as mission-critical as they come.


  • Each airline has its own flight operating manuals (i.e., the airline‘s documentation/policies).
  • Each airframe manufacturer provides its own documentation (i.e., the doc for the airplane).
  • These documents are subject to a stream of changes and updates that one would expect for a complex product in a changing industry.
  • These documents are also specific to a given airplane (aka “tail number”). As it turns out not all 737s or A320s are identical. There are variations in manufacturing that require each plane to have its own custom doc. (This problem is known as “effectivity” in the business, because you need to know that a specific procedure is only “effective” to tail numbers 15-23 that contain a specific assembly.)
  • Overlaid against this is a stream of notices and regulatory updates that come from the government.

So finding out what to do when you strike a bird isn’t as simple as turning to page 57 in a single book. You can think of it as fine-grained (get me the paragraph, not the chapter), context-specific (I’m on take-off, not approach) search across the above silos of content. In reality, I’m told that flight crews literally have 3 books open and their fingers jammed in each of them to cross-reference the procedures that should be followed in a given situation.

As a frequent flyer, I’m happy that we’re working with this customer to prototype and build better ways to get flight crews the information they need.

I remember at one point during the meeting, the customer said:

We don’t fly airplanes, we fly documents. If the documents aren’t correct the planes don’t leave the ground.

I chalked it up to heat-of-the-moment hyperbole … until I read this blog post on the Content Wrangler this morning. The post points to this underlying article from which I quote:

The Transport Canada inspectors revoked Jetsgo’s operating certificate when they discovered certain incomplete descriptions in the Jetsgo manuals. This forced Jetsgo to fly at lower altitudes, which in turn increased fuel consumption and, by mid-March, ultimately put the airline out of business.

Maybe airlines really do fly documents and not airplanes. Or, better put, without the right documents, the airplanes don’t fly.

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