Yes, pilots do take turns sleeping during long haul flights. This is known as “augmented crews” or “long-range flying with augmented crews.” The main reason for having augmented crews is so that pilots can take rests during cruise to avoid fatigue.
Why Do Airlines Use Augmented Crews?
There are a few key reasons why airlines utilize augmented crews on long flights:
- Fatigue Mitigation – Having extra pilots on board allows the flight crew to take regular rest breaks and reduces fatigue. This improves alertness and safety.
- Flight Time Limits – Aviation regulations limit the number of hours pilots can fly without rest. Augmented crews allow airlines to operate longer flights without breaking duty time rules.
- Workload Sharing – With multiple pilots, the workload can be shared more evenly. This reduces stress and creates redundancy in case of emergencies.
- Passenger Comfort – Well-rested pilots are better equipped to handle inflight events smoothly, improving the passenger experience.
In short, having extra pilots enables safer, more efficient long-haul flight operations.
How Does Pilot Rest Work on Long Flights?
On flights over a certain duration, airlines will schedule extra pilots beyond the standard two pilots (a captain and first officer) required to operate the aircraft. A minimum of three pilots are required on flights longer than 12 hours, while very long routes may have four or more pilots.
These additional pilots will take turns resting in special onboard rest facilities. Bunks, beds, or private sleeping quarters are provided so pilots can sleep in an isolated, dark, and comfortable environment.
Rest periods are scheduled at specific points in the flight to align with circadian rhythms and maximize alertness when flying. Typically, each pilot will have at least one rest period of around 2-5 hours during the flight. The remaining pilots continue operating the plane while their colleagues rest.
The schedule is carefully planned by the airline before departure to ensure proper crew coverage at all times. Pilots also adhere to strict rest rules to ensure they are fully rested when their active flying shift begins.
What Are the Rest Requirements for Pilots on Long Flights?
Aviation regulators around the world have established flight duty time limitations and rest requirements to prevent pilot fatigue. While specific rules vary between countries, some general requirements include:
- At least 8-10 hours of rest in the 24 hours before reporting for an augmented long-haul flight duty period.
- Inflight rest periods must be at least 2 hours long and provide adequate sleep conditions.
- Maximum of 18-20 hours of total flight duty time when operating with augmented crews.
- Minimum of 36 consecutive hours free from duty after completing an ultra long-range trip before returning to work.
Airlines must demonstrate how their scheduling adheres to these augmented crew rest rules. Pilots are also responsible for being properly rested and declaring if they are fatigued before flight assignments.
What Are the Rest Facilities Like on Long-Haul Aircraft?
Specially designed pilot rest compartments are installed on long-haul aircraft to provide optimal sleep environments. Here are some common features:
- Bunk beds or lie-flat seats – Similar to business class seats that convert into fully flat beds for comfortable sleeping.
- Darkness – Light-blocking window shades or eye masks are used to recreate night conditions.
- Soundproofing – Insulated walls and white noise generators minimize noise disturbances.
- Ventilation – Fresh airflow and temperature control provides a comfortable climate.
- Alarms – Intercom or alarm systems alert pilots if needed back on the flight deck.
- Amenities – Blankets, pillows, and other amenities help pilots rest better.
Modern aircraft like the Boeing 787 Dreamliner and Airbus A350 have dedicated crew rest compartments with all these amenities built-in. Retrofitted older model planes may have more basic bunk facilities.
What Happens in an Emergency When Pilots Are Resting?
Even with pilots resting, there are always at least two qualified pilots actively operating the plane. The remaining crew is ready to assist if needed.
If an emergency occurs during a pilot’s rest period, there are procedures to urgently wake them. Intercoms or alarms sound in the bunks. The resting pilots must immediately report to the flight deck.
Once awake, pilots are trained to overcome any residual grogginess and be able to function effectively within a few minutes. Drills are practiced so pilots can rapidly transition from resting to assuming emergency duties if necessary.
Do Both Pilots Ever Sleep at the Same Time on Long Flights?
No, regulations require a minimum of two pilots be on duty at all times. At no point would all pilots be resting simultaneously during a long-haul flight. One of the pilots must always be awake and in command of the aircraft.
The flight crew takes staggered rest periods to ensure proper coverage. Long-range planes may have additional reserve or “deadheading” pilots onboard who can step in if needed.
How Much Sleep Do Pilots Get on Ultra Long-Range Flights?
Total rest time varies based on the flight length and number of pilots. Some estimates on sleep durations:
- 12-16 hour flights – 1 or 2 rest periods of around 2 hours each.
- 16-18 hour flights – 2 rest periods of 2-3 hours.
- 18+ hour flights – 2 or 3 rest periods of at least 3 hours.
So the typical long-haul pilot may get 4-6 hours of total sleep. This is sufficient to remain alert when augmented with strategic nap timing aligned with circadian rhythms.
What Happens When Pilots Get Off Work After Ultra Long Flights?
After the plane lands safely, pilots must have an extended recovery rest period before working again. Requirements typically include:
- Minimum 36 hours of time off work.
- No duties scheduled for at least 48 hours after waking from final rest period.
- Restriction from further unaugmented long-haul duties for one week.
These mandatory time-off rules ensure pilots can fully recover from extended duty days and long-haul operations before returning to flight duties.
Utilizing augmented crews with inflight pilot rest allows airlines to operate long-range flights safely and efficiently. Careful scheduling, onboard rest facilities, and strict fatigue rules enable multiple pilots to work together while remaining well-rested. Pilots may get several hours of sleep when augmented, but minimum staffing and quick response procedures also allow them to manage emergencies if they arise.
|Flight Duration||Typical Pilot Rest Time|
|12-16 hours||2 x 2 hour rest periods|
|16-18 hours||2 x 2-3 hour rest periods|
|18+ hours||2-3 x 3+ hour rest periods|