How Airline Crews Deal With Long-Haul Flights

Ever wondered what measures airlines go to to ensure their crew successfully manages long-haul flights? Long-haul flights are typically those which are upwards of seven hours in flight time. From crew rotation to pilot rest requirements, we examine how airlines fly long-haul.

How Airline Crews Deal With Long-Haul Flights
How do airlines like Qantas manage long-haul flights? Photo: Steve Lynes via Flickr

How many people keep a plane flying?

The answer to this question really depends on the flight. Different services require different amounts of staff and different rotas. But there will always be two pilots on any flight, often more for long-haul missions. There will also be enough cabin crew to split shifts ensuring that no individual completes more than 14 hours in the cabin.

Scheduling long-haul is a delicate balance. This is why, recently, Qantas trialed its Project Sunrise flight with just 50 people on board in order to manage crew scheduling and pilot rotation.

Keeping pilots in check

Let’s start with one of the most significant changes in the 21st century for airplane pilots. In 2011, The FAA (Federal Aviation Authority) changed its policy on pilot rest requirements and fitness for duty. It ensured the wording of its policy was clearer as well as updated in regards to maximum flight hours and opportunities for uninterrupted rest.

The regulations say that pilots need to have 10 hours of rest before their flight, with the opportunity for eight hours of uninterrupted sleep within that time. Pilots must also sign a form before they fly to say that they are fit for duty. It suggests that while measures are in place to protect pilots, the ultimate onus lies with the individual.

Reserve pilots also operate under a 10-hour rest rule, whereas before they only needed a rest of 24 hours in 7 days. These rules for both serving and reserve pilots apply to all international, domestic and unscheduled flights in the U.S.

Singapore Airlines takes its pilots’ rest requirements very seriously. The airline told us:

“In addition to rest days, cabin crew and pilots are given in-flight rest on longer flights. The in-flight rest periods exceed mandatory requirements stipulated by the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore…Regular communication with our flying crew allows the Company to share tips and recommendations on fatigue management. To facilitate this, Singapore Airlines is currently exploring the development of a fatigue management app for flying crew.”

How long can pilots work?

In the U.S., pilots can fly a maximum of 60 hours in a 168-hour long period (defined as one week). Within 365 days, not more than 1,000 flight hours can be logged. Those same rules also apply to European pilots.

Consequently, long-haul flights require multiple pilots as well as crew. And with the rise of ultra-long-haul flights, that becomes even more essential.

Maximum flight times for pilots depend on the scheduled time of their first flight. If a pilot’s first flight is between 5 am and 7.59 pm, the pilot can fly for a maximum of nine hours if they are the only pilot on the flight. If the flight is outside of those hours, the maximum flight time is eight hours. But when there are more pilots on a flight, flight time is increased.

With three pilots, flight time can be 13 hours and with four pilots up to 17 hours. That means that on long haul flights of this duration, pilots will rotate to cover the flight time.

Segregated sleeping

How Airline Crews Deal With Long-Haul Flights
This is how some pilot rest areas look. Photo: Boeing

When it comes to pilots taking their rest, their quarters are always separate from the Crew Rest Compartments. The rest areas are used in shifts and normally are kitted out with Business Class luxuries.

Delta Airlines told one publication:

“We want to take care of our flight crews.”

And the reason for this, above all, is safety.

How Airline Crews Deal With Long-Haul Flights
Cabin crews have different rest areas. Photo: Boeing

Crew rest areas are either above or below passengers where space would normally not be used. Again, the rest areas are used in shifts. It’s common for cabin crew staff to swap halfway through the flight to catch some rest.

Let us know your long-haul stories in the comments.