"Once we get our final paperwork, we'll be ready to close the doors and get underway." Even if you've only flown a handful of times, you have probably heard the captain say something along these lines during their preflight welcome announcement. What is "the paperwork," and why do pilots still need paper documents in an age of digital solutions? Let's talk about it.
Defining "the paperwork"
The paperwork contains critical performance numbers for the aircraft's departure. Specifically, the passenger load, aircraft weight, trim settings for the horizontal stabilizer, flap settings, and engine thrust ratings are displayed on one or multiple sheets of paper that come off the flight deck printer. Some airlines allow their crews to start taxiing towards the departure runway with just the passenger count alone, while others require all the performance data to be obtained by the pilots before pushing back.
This information does not necessarily need to be printed on paper. Every airline has applications for pilots to calculate "manual" weight and balance numbers for their takeoff in case the printer is inoperative or if the flight is non-scheduled (such as a ferry or a charter flight). Some airlines even make this app-based calculation their primary method for obtaining performance data.
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The many airlines that send takeoff performance information to the flight deck printer believe that pilots' jobs are made easier when physical copies of performance numbers can be placed in view of both pilots. Having physical print-outs is admittedly easier and requires less transitioning back and forth from screen to screen when inputting and checking data.
Reducing the paperwork
Historically, airlines have provided physical print-outs of much more than takeoff performance data. Entire flight plans used to be printed out at the dispatch center or gate podium and were required to be onboard for the legality of the flight. Nowadays, most airlines send pilots digital copies of the flight plan that are accessible on tablets (though some airlines still require printed copies to be carried by the crew).
Flight plans for long international flights can easily span 50 or more pages. Most of the information in this stack of pages is NOTAMs (Notices to Air Missions) that relate to the airports listed in the flight plan and advisories for en-route operations.
International flights require another essential document to be carried by the pilots. Whenever a flight lands at an international destination, a "general declaration" is needed. The "GenDec" lists the number of passengers and crew, the tail number, the flight, and other pertinent information. Many countries require additional information for international arrivals, but the GenDec is the most common piece of paper that is needed to be carried by pilots.
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File it away!
The flight deck trash bag at the airlines is known as the "filing cabinet." Compared to just a few years ago, fewer documents are "filed" after a short use because more information is available on tablets. Weather information, dispatcher messages, and en-route NOTAMs have migrated to digital form. This reduces the amount of paper on the flight deck and makes it feel less cluttered. However, there will always be a paper presence on the flight deck, albeit small, for the most critical pieces of information.