In our Ask a Pilot series, pilot Spencer Marker answers one of your aviation-related questions each week. See past installments here and submit your own to email@example.com.
Does the cockpit crew doze off during the flight? (I’m going to do the polar route, Toronto-Shanghai)
Tom Mathers – white knuckle flyer
Hey Tom, thanks for writing in. Since commercial aviation deals with hopping around the globe and bringing the world’s corners just a little closer together, the alertness of your flight crew is paramount to safety. And the FAA, airlines and my fellow flight crew members take this issue very seriously.
I see you’re a flyer from Toronto, Canada, so I wanted to make one note: I am a US-based pilot and grew up learning FAA regulations, so I’ll be referencing those. Transport Canada’s (Canada’s FAA equivalent) may very slightly.
Naps in the flight deck
To answer your question in the most direct way possible, as it stands right now, it is against FAA regulations for the flight crew to take even short naps on flights when they are at their duty stations. Much like in the driver’s seat of a car, if you’re driving, no sleeping. The FAA mitigates fatigue by limiting these pilots to a maximum of eight or nine hours flying time and minimum of 10 hours of rest between duty days. (The finer details of FAA pilot rest rules can be found here.)
There have been many studies and articles written on the subject of quick naps for flight crews (like this one). But in spite of evidence indicating the benefits of short, controlled napping, the FAA has yet to make changes. However, there are a handful of international carriers that actually do permit short, controlled rests in flight. But these rest periods are only allowed under a very strict set of circumstances, such as during cruise flight and in good weather. The logic behind this is that if a pilot takes a short nap, no more than a few minutes, during a non-critical phase of flight, he or she will be more alert when it comes to landing the aircraft. The FAA does not yet agree.
The “augmented flight crew”
The regulations are slightly different for flights like the one you will be taking from Toronto to Shanghai. Flights of this length cannot be accomplished by two pilots alone as they exceed the 8-9 hour maximum. So what do we do? This is where augmented flight crews come in. In an augmented crew, relief pilots are on board the airplane. During pre-determined intervals, one of these fully qualified pilots will go to the cockpit and take over for one of the flying pilots. The pilot who is relived steps out of the cockpit and is free to get some rest.
Depending on the aircraft, that pilot may take a seat in first class that has been reserved for them, or move into the crew rest facility. Found only on larger aircraft like the Boeing 787 or behemoth Airbus A380, this is a dedicated space that’s off-limits to passengers and provides pilots a comfortable place to sleep and relax away from the noisy cabin. These accommodations usually include a flat mattress with bedding and a business class-style recliner seat. Some are located below the floor, while some are cleverly tucked into the ceiling above the overhead bins. And while they aren’t quite as posh as a first class seat on an A380, they do their job quite well.
The bottom line
So to wrap it all up, if a flight crew member is at their station for a US airline, no snoozing allowed. However, on a long flight like your Toronto-Shanghai segment, once a pilot is relieved from their station by another flight crew member, he or she is free to use that time to rest. And a well-rested and trained flight crew is the key to a safe and enjoyable flight for everyone.
Thanks again for your question, Tom—and if you have a burning aviation question or something you would like cleared up, drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org to get your question featured in an upcoming “Ask a Pilot” column.
Clear skies and tailwinds,