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Are Pilots Allowed To Sleep During Flights?

Whether airline pilots are allowed to sleep during long-haul flights seem to be an eternally asked passenger pilot-question.

Yes, pilots can sleep during flights.

Here’s it how it’s done in full compliance with Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) rules, as it applies to U.S.-regulated airlines:

Airplane Crew Rest quarters video. YouTube.

Where does pilot-sleep during flights take place?

Where pilots sleep during flights depend on how the airplane is equipped. Some airplanes, for example, the Boeing 777 has crew-rest quarters where the pilot can sleep. The same crew rest quarter is typically the same one reserved for the flight attendants.

In non-crew rest configured airplanes, such as in the typical setup of a Boeing 767, the pilot would be asleep in pre-reserved for crew-only passenger seats, most likely in the First Class cabin.

Some passengers are not aware of the legality of pilots sleeping inflight, as this “sensational” news report showed.

How long-haul flight pilot cockpit staffing works

These rules come to play, based on how many hours the pilot’s duty period consist of.

What’s does a “pilot duty period” mean?

One duty period is one or more flights (called “legs” in a pilot’s professional jargon) within one continuous workday (duty period).

  • For flights for more than 8 hours, you will have an extra (augmented) pilot on board. Such a crew consists of one captain and two co-pilots (called First Officers). That’s a total of three pilots on your flight. One of the two co-pilots is designated as a “relief pilot“. A relief pilot takes the captain;’s seat when the captain sleeps. The relief pilot takes the co-pilot’s seat when the co-pilot sleeps.
  • For flights for more than 12 hours, you will have an extra (augmented) pilot crew of one captain and three first officers. That’s a total of four pilots on your flight. Two of the three co-pilots are designated as “relief pilots“.

When do the pilots sleep during the flight?

The duty rest segments are divided among every pilot on board. Let’s say you are on a flight scheduled to fly for 10 hours and 35 minutes. This flight would have a total of three pilots on board.

The first pilot would start his duty rest as soon as the airplane climbs to cruising altitude after takeoff, for example after passing 18,000 feet.

The second pilot would start his or her duty rest about 3 hours after the first pilot completes the duty rest.

The third pilot would take the last 3-hour duty rest and be back on duty well before starting the descent to landing.

Pilots approaching for land at New York JFK, rested after sleeping during flight from Buenos Aires.
New York City aerial view at the end of an allnighter from Buenos Aires, Argentina. Photo: Carlos Perez for CaptainJetson.com.

The CAPTAIN is ALWAYS in command of the airplane

In spite of so many pilots, your flight still has only one person in charge of all the pilots, flight attendants, and the passenger. And that’s the captain.

The captain will be notified immediately from his or her crew-bunk or first-class crewrest-seat should the captain’s presence be needed during his or her rest.

Where do relief pilots sit during takeoff and landing?

Cockpits have what’s called “jumpseats”. These are up to two extra seats located behind the captain and the co-pilot seat.

During takeoff and landing, the relief pilots act as extra safety observers during these critical phases of flight.

A set of 6-8 pilot eyes in a cockpit provide more safety vigilance than the 4 eyes that the captain and the co-pilot represent alone.

Do pilots sleep in the cockpit?

No, U.S. pilots are not allowed to sleep in the cockpit. Your pilots have designated crew rest areas for sleeping. Depending on the airplane type the crew rest areas can be in a crew bunk, or it can be a reserved first-class seat.

When the pilot is on crew rest he or she is off duty, free to do whatever they want. But, only for the purpose of sleeping or resting.

As a passenger, do you have problems falling asleep during your flight?

Well, guess what. Pilots are human beings too, so whether your pilot is able to actually sleep during the crew rest is as individual as anyone else’s ability to sleep on an airplane.

If you have been on flights taking you across several time zones you know how fatiguing flying can be.

Your pilots are affected by fatigue from jet lag, night flying, and countless hours in the air, just like you are,

Long-haul pilots typically fly (as in my own case) 4 (four!) flights to and from the U.S.A. and Europe, or the U.S.A. and the South Pacific or Asia every month.

If you have done just one such flight you know how fatiguing such a flight is. Now imagine doing four of those flights a month, month after month!

Questions, comments?

This article explained how U.S. pilots can legally sleep during flights, but not in the cockpit. Have you experienced fatigue and jetlag flying through several time zones? Tell us about it here.

Featured Image: Unsplash.

This article was updated on July 31, 2020.

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