Airbus vs Boeing Design Differences from a Pilots Perspective
The Differences in Design Philosophy
Boeing versus Airbus – What are the differences for the Pilots?
At first glance, the design of the flight decks for Airbus and Boeing aircraft which are currently in production are visually quite similar. The screens, thrust levers, and various controls and levers are located in similar positions as can be seen when comparing an Airbus 320-200 and Boeing 737-800 flight deck in images below.
A320 Flight Deck
B737 Flight Deck
Much of the similarities, both in terms of anthropometric design and automation, are mandated by the certification requirements set out by EASA and the FAA in CS/FAR-25. This mandates much of what must be visible to the flight crew, and its respective distance or angle from the Eye Datum Point for certain instruments (EASA 2020).
It could be observed that the significant visual difference between the design of the two flight decks is the inclusion of a Control Yoke on the Boeing aircraft, as opposed to the Side Stick found on the Airbus. Behind these two design differences there is a fundamental difference in the automation philosophy between the two manufactures. Both manufactures have previously described their philosophy with regards to aircraft design and automation.
Whilst both manufactures share the philosophy that the pilots are ultimately responsible for the safe operation of the aircraft, Airbus has stated that “Automation should allow the operator to use the safe flight envelope to its full extent…” (Spitzer, Ferrell 2015: 224) (Airbus 2017: 6). This philosophy is incorporated into the automation design through Airbus’s flight control laws. In Normal and Alternate Law, the flight crew are able to manipulate the flight controls but are unable to make any input which would result in the aircraft operating outside a pre-defined set of parameters (Ibsen 2009: 343).
The result is that the flight crew do therefore not have complete authority over the aircraft as certain flight envelope protections are in place to ensure various aircraft limitations are not exceeded. These are known as “Hard” limits (Spitzer, Ferrell 2015: 224). These flight envelope protections are removed in Direct Law, however this law can’t be manually selected by the crew (Ibsen 2009: 343).
On the other hand, Boeing has stated in its design philosophy that “The pilot is the final authority for the operation of the aeroplane” (Spitzer, Ferrell 2015: 224). This is incorporated into the design of its fly-by-wire aircraft by allowing the pilot complete control authority of the aircraft, regardless of whether this results in departure from the normal flight envelope (Harris 2011: 379).
Why is there a difference in philosophy?
Airbus introduced this ‘hard limit’ philosophy and subsequent technology into its Airbus 320 aircraft which entered service in 1987. Given that the majority of airline accidents are caused by Human Error (Wiegmann, Shappell 2016: 10), it could be considered that such technology was introduced on an ideological basis on the premise that it enhanced flight safety. This technology has been consistently applied on all Airbus models since the A320, simplifying and streamlining crew training and aircraft maintenance resulting in cost reductions for the airlines (Ibsen 2009: 347).
Boeing made a conscious decision to embrace the philosophy of full pilot authority over the aircraft through being able to override any fly-by-wire system, when the B777 was introduced, which was the first Boeing aircraft to incorporate such technology (Ibsen 2009: 347). With an extensive history of aircraft design, this allowed a degree of commonality and continuity for Boeing aircraft pilots (Ibsen 2009: 347). The flight crew have the ability to simply fly the aircraft unrestricted whether they are operating old, new, small or large airframes from the Boeing family.
There are clear aesthetic similarities between the two flight deck designs which are likely as a result of the certification requirements stipulated in CS/FAR-25. However, there are clear differences in automation philosophy, with Airbus restricting pilot control authority, ensuring the aircraft remains within a predetermined flight envelope (Harris 2011: 379). On the other hand, Boeing allows the pilots operating its aircraft have complete control authority if necessary (Harris 2011: 379).
Airbus. (2017) ‘The Airbus Cockpit Philosophy’ Proceedings of Flight Operations Safety and Awareness Seminar, ‘Airbus Flight Operations Support and Training Standards’. Held 19-21 September 2017 in Nairobi.
European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), Certification Specifications and Acceptable Means of Compliance for Large Aeroplanes CS-25, Amendment 24. available from <https://www.easa.europa.eu/sites/default/files/dfu/CS-25%20Amendment%2024.pdf> [10 January 2020]
Harris, D. (2001) Human Performance on the Flight Deck. London: CRC Press
Ibsen, A. (2009) ‘The politics of airplane production: The emergence of two technological frames in the competition between Boeing and Airbus’. Technology in Society 31, 342-349
Spitzer, C. Ferrell, U. Ferrell, T. Becker, SG. (2015) Digital Avionics Handbook. London: CRC Press, Taylor & Francis Group
Wiegmann D., Shapell S. (2016) A Human Error Approach to Aviation Accident Analysis. Oxford: Routledge
Why do Airline Pilots Wear a Uniform?
Recognisable. Professionalism. Authority.
Why Do Pilots Wear a Uniform?
Airline Pilots wear uniforms to make them instantly recognisable when at the airport or in the aircraft. The flight crew are in charge of the aircraft and therefore need to command respect and authority from passenger and colleagues.
Pilot uniforms are typically similar in design to that of some military officer uniforms as traditionally, military and commercial aviation share the same heritage. Each airline has a unique uniform design for its pilots, some more subtle than others, although they are clearly generally similar in their make-up.
They are worn for a number of reasons:
It’s important that the flight crew and their rank can be easily identified by passengers and staff, whether this be in the terminal or on-board the aircraft. Either through first-hand experience or through exposure to uniform in the news, films or pictures, almost everyone has a good idea what a pilot uniform looks like, making them instantly recognisable.
The flight crew may need to give time critical safety related instructions. If an individual look’s like they have a high level of authority, the instructions being issued will be more likely to be followed.
The travelling public quite rightly expect their pilots to operate to the highest professional standards. Flying is a safety critical industry where passenger need reassurance that everything associated with the act of flying a plane, is done so professionally and to a high standard.
Portraying a professional image by looking smart and presentable helps to reassure passengers of the flight crews professional standards. If a pilot turned up looking scruffy with their shirt not ironed, loose tie with the top button un-done and not well groomed, how would you this make you feel about their professional standards?
You want your pilots to be looking tip top as their consciously or subconsciously, their uniform standards will reflect their overall standard of operation of the aircraft.
What does a Pilots Uniform Consist of?
A typical pilot uniform consists of a jacket which is usually decorated with a set of the airline’s wings to help identify the individuals as pilots. A name badge is normally also present along with stripes on the arms to indicate the rank of the pilots.
Generally speaking 4 stripes indicates the rank of Captain, 3 Senior First Officer and 2 First Officer. There are some variations on this depending on the airline; for example, some airlines only have 3 stripes for their First Officers.
There are also variations in what some airlines deem to qualify someone as a Senior First Officer as some are based on time within the company whereas others are based on total hours flight time.
The contents of the jacket such as the wings, name badge and rank indicators (through epilates worn on the shoulder) are usually duplicated on the pilot’s shirt.
Material matching the jacket will usually make up the trousers.
Shoes should typically be plain black leather without any intricate patterns or contrasting colours for the stitching or laces.
Why do Pilots Wear Hats?
Not all airlines still require their flight crew to wear hats as part of their uniform. Low cost airlines such as Ryanair and easyJet do not include hats as part of the pilots uniform, but most legacy carriers such as British Airways, Qantas, Emirates and American Airlines do.
Many airlines still require their pilots to wear hats for the same reasons that they require their pilots to wear uniform; recognition, authority and professionalism.
Pilot Grooming Standards
Many airlines set out minimum grooming standards and guidelines for its flight crew.
For men, neat and well-groomed facial hair is usually allowed but beards must typically be short if the donning of a full-face oxygen mask was required (triggered by a depressurisation or smoke/fumes event).
Hair is required to be well groomed with no ‘extreme’ cuts or colours such as a ‘Mohican’. Any ‘non-normal’ colouring, like red, blue, green etc. is also prohibited.
What is a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP)?
A look at Standard Operating Procedures and why they are used.
What is a Standard Operating Procedure?
SOP is an abbreviation for a Standard Operating Procedure. It is a framework of common procedures set out by an airline which supports pilots in operating a commercial aircraft safely and consistently.
Many industries use SOP’s as a common way of ensuring tasks or operations are completed correctly, however SOP’s are essential and fundamental in aviation.
Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) serve a number of purposes such as:
- Ensuring that aircraft is flown correctly in accordance with the manufacturer’s guidelines
- Promote adherence to the manufacturer’s and airline’s operating philosophy
- Promote operational safety
- Promote operational efficiency
- Utilise aircraft resources and functionality appropriately
It also allows any pilots from the same company who may not have flown with each other before (or may even never met each other), to fly together as a crew. Adherence to SOPs means each pilot know exactly what they and the other pilot should be doing in any given phase of flight. This is particularly important when working for a large airline with hundreds of pilots.
Different types of SOP’s
The following are different types of Standard Operating Procedures:
A memory flow of arranging switches and levers in the correct position for a particular phase of flight. For example, it is normal that the PM / PNF (Pilot monitoring or Pilot not flying) will complete the before start flow and then read the before start checklist which the PF (Pilot flying) will respond to.
A call or acknowledgement of an event. For example, most EASA airlines have to acknowledge an automated callout of 1,000ft which would be followed by PM / PNF stating whether they are stable or not for the subsequent landing.
A procedure that requires completing with certain criteria. For example, in visible moisture below 10 degrees pilots will be required to taxi and take off with engine anti-ice systems on.
SOP’s can also be developed as time goes by to incorporate improvements based on experience, accidents, near misses or innovations from other manufacturers or operators to suit the needs of a particular organisation.
SOP design covers both normal and non-normal operations. For example, they dictate how the take-off should be flown whilst also providing guidelines for how to respond to an engine failure.
SOP’s should not be designed to be too detailed and exhaustive that the pilot does not provide any form of cognition to the process and not be too relaxed to the point that the crew have too many options to decide between.
If a pilot is not conforming to SOP’s he/she can be expected to be challenged by the other pilot. Failure to respond appropriately to 2 or more SOP deviation calls by the other pilot will lead them to assume you have become incapacitated and will assume control of the aircraft.
However, there may be an occasion where it is preferably or vital to ignore or not carry out an SOP. This would normally be in an emergency situation. An example of this would be continuing to land the aircraft below the operating minima where the pilots had not become visual with the runway as they had an uncontrollable cabin fire. In this case it would be safer to continue with the landing despite it being against the rules (or SOPs) to do so.
How much do airline pilots get paid a year?
Captains and First Officers Salary
How Much Do Airline Pilots Get Paid?
Generally speaking, the bigger the aircraft and the further the aircraft is flown, the more an airline pilot gets paid. Many airlines also have a yearly increase in salary that reflects the pilots length of service or seniority.
The Guardian (a UK newspaper) stated that in 2016, airline pilots were the 4th highest paid profession in the United Kingdom earning an average of £86,915 ($120,000 / €95,000), before tax a year.
The Roles of Pilots
Airline pilots are split into two roles; the Captain and First Officer. The Captain is in charge of the aircraft and ultimately responsible for the safety of the passengers, crew and aircraft. The First Officer assists the Captain in the safe operation of the flight with (on most days), the flying duties being split evenly, taking it in turns to fly the aircraft. The First Officers roles can be further split into a junior First Officer, Second Officer or Senior First Officer. Training Captains and First Officers (pilots who train other pilots) would expect to earn an extra increment on top of those stated below.
The figures below are meant to be used as a general guide and there will always be exceptions above or below the figures. Each airline has its own pilot pay scales which will vary with the type of operation and aircraft type. The taxation applicable to each country will significantly alter the take home pay (net) for a given gross salary. Please note the Dollars and Euros figures given are based on a UK pound sterling coversion. Salaries are updated to reflect conditions in 2021.
Long Haul Pilot Pay
Short Haul Pilot Pay
Regional Pilot Pay
Charter Airline Pilot Pay
How much does it cost to train as commercial airline pilot?
The total cost of commercial pilot training
How much does flight training cost?
As of 2021, the cost of commercial pilot training is between £/€ 40,000 to £/€ 150,000. The cost depends on which flight school you train at and the type of training you do (there’s more than one training route to becoming an airline pilot). Unfortunately, the cost of flight training is very expensive and can be a barrier to some people becoming a pilot.
At present, the majority of airline’s currently require the student to pay the cost of training and this seems unlikely to change for the foreseeable future given the number of pilots out of work who are seeking reemployment as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.
- A full time commercial flight training course (known as an integrated course) completed at a European flight school will cost upwards of £80,000 to around £130,000.
- Part time flight training, or a course completed at a various flight training organisations (known as modular training) will start at around £40,000 rising up to approxmately £60,000.
Type Rating Costs
You also need to factor in that many aircraft require the newly hired employee to pay for his or her Type Rating. This is the qualification needed by a pilot to operate a specific aircraft type such as a Boeing 737. This can cost between £15,000 to £35,000 depending on who provides the training.
To see what options there are to help you fund your flight training, you can visit our ‘Financing Flight Training‘ page for more information.
Integrated Flight Training
Integrated flight training refers to a full time commercial flight training course, where all of the training is completed with the same dedicated flight training organisation. Students who complete integrated flight training can complete the course with fewer flight hours than that required if completing it through the modular route. A full time integrated course usually takes between about 14 – 18 months, however it is dependant on the weather and satisfactory student progress at each stage.
Integrated Training Advantages:
- It’s the quickest way to complete your flight training (14-18 months)
- High quality, intensive training
- Many airlines have traditionally preferred students from integrated training courses
- Many integrated flight schools have good relationships with airlines, and have a recommendation system
- Some airlines run mentored training programs which provide a fast track route into a job after completing your training
- Fewer flight hours are required to obtain your CPL/IR
Modular Flight Training
Modular flight training refers to completing your flight training one step at a time. You can do the training at your own pace, as your spare time and finances allow. It’s usually cheaper than integrated training and gives you maximum flexibility.
You would normally complete your modular flight training in the following order:
- Private Pilots Licence (PPL)
- Airline Transport Pilots Licence (ATPL) Theoretical Examinations
- Hour Building
- Commercial Pilots Licence
- Instrument Rating
- Multi Crew Cooperation Course
Modular Flight Training Advantages
- It’s the cheapest way to get your commercial pilots licence
- You can pay for it as you go, no large fees are required upfront
- You can complete it in your own time, alongside a full time job
For more information on the Pro’s and Con’s of each training route, visit our Integrated vs Modular page.
A day in the life of a Long Haul Pilot
The typical lifestyle of a long haul pilot
A Typical Day as a Long Haul Pilot
This is one of our pilots typical day at ‘the office’. A long haul flight from London Heathrow to Las Vegas on a Boeing 747-400. It represents a typical day for a long haul pilot.
Day before Departure
So the day before departure I check the weather just to confirm it’s boiling hot and that I will be requiring an array of shorts and flip flops! I pack my suitcase (this trip is 6 days long), check any notices that have been issued in my week off, ensure all my apps are up to date on my iPad and the iPad is fully charged along with my battery pack (Our mature jumbo jets do not have power available in the flight deck).
As I’m packing my bags I try not to appear too happy to be going to Vegas for 6 days, the wife picks up on this and she finds it especially annoying if I whistle in a jolly way as I’m packing the sun tan lotion, so I have learnt to avoid whistling until I’m in the car on my own driving to work!
Report / Check-in
Report time (the time I have to be ready at the briefing room) is 10:45. This means I will have to be in the staff car park by 10:00 to catch the bus to the terminal, check in my bags and ensure I can take care of any admin housekeeping before proceeding to the briefing area. Just as I’m on the bus I get a text message from a flight crew colleague on short haul (we always have a bit of long haul vs short haul banter – poor guys!) as his brother and wife are on our flight and he wanted us to try and ensure they get on (they are on standby).
We are lucky on the Jumbo as we have at least 6 spare cabin crew jump seats we can use for staff passengers, on some flights (depending on the length and time of flight) we get a club world seat allocated to the flight deck for rest if we choose not to use our bunk beds in the flight deck.
After checking in my bag I head to our Crew Report Centre which is a huge area with about 12 briefing rooms, offices, managers, currency exchange, coffee shops, luggage stores and our own dedicated security checkpoint. I check in on the computer terminals 15 mins early, check any notices (by checking in I’m confirming I have a valid licence, medical and am up to date with all new notices from the company).
We have been assigned briefing room number 1 today and the cabin crew (14 today) are all inside the room briefing.
Meeting the Crew
I meet up with the other 2 pilots (we have 3 due to the length of the flight and so we can share rest) and after the pleasantries are out of the way we decide who is going to operate the 2 sectors (one flight there and one back). So one pilot will not operate the controls for take off and landing during this trip.
Who is going to fly?
This decision will first of all be based on currency and by that I mean every pilot has to do one takeoff and landing in a month (in my company it is 35 days). Due to annual leave, sickness or other reasons it could be that a pilot needs to do the flight to maintain his/her currency.
The Captain will be sat at the controls for both flights during take off and landing, the 2 Senior First Officers will rotate, one will be rostered to be the operating pilot outbound and the other will be the ‘heavy pilot’. This will normally swap round for the inbound flight.
We call it heavy not because first officers tend to be overweight but because we are operating with a ‘heavy’ crew, a crew composition that is higher than required to operate the aircraft.
On ultra long flights (over 12 hours each way) we have 4 pilots. So we decide that I will operate the flight outbound as pilot flying. This means although I am not the Captain, the Captain will delegate most of the decisions to me, I will conduct the take off and landing and lead all the briefings.
A Full Flight
The flight today is full, which is no surprise and we do have staff on standby trying to get on. The first thing we do is print off the paperwork and check on our trip report that there are no company messages specific to our flight. Examples of these might be security messages (recommendations not to leave the hotel), portable water fill levels (the water that comes out the taps – on shorter flights we do not fill it up to capacity due to the extra weight as not all the water will be required).
Crew Room Briefing
We then move onto the briefing, looking at the significant weather charts across our whole route which would highlight any issues, we look at departure, destination and alternate airports weather and notams in detail, we look at en-route alternates, en-route airspace notams and sigmets, we perform a check to ensure we will not be too heavy to land at the destination and alternate airport.
A look at LAS
We check to ensure all of us have watched the video presentation for Las Vegas. The airport is categorised by my company as Category B which effectively means there are various challenges in operating into the airport.
Today, the weather is very hot, forecast is 40 degrees, Las Vegas has some interesting non-precision approaches and is surrounded by high terrain as well as being 2,500ft above sea level. Today, we also have thunderstorms and forecast severe turbulence en-route.
What do we brief?
With the briefing we are effectively looking to see if we can depart out of the departure airport, operate into the destination and alternate airports taking into account the weather and notams. Once the answer is yes, we then need to decide on how much fuel to take. Do we need any extra over and above the flight plan minimum requirement? Extra fuel costs a lot of money, for every extra 1,000kgs of fuel we take we use about 1/3 of it just to carry it!
We have a flight plan that is very accurate and details exactly how much fuel we need. Minimum fuel for this flight is 114,200kgs of fuel – a lot!!! The Jumbo can actually hold 173,000kgs of fuel which is actually the weight of approx 2, maybe 3 fully loaded medium size aircraft and that’s just our fuel load. Our take off weight today will be around 340,000kgs.
Cabin Crew Briefing
Once the briefing is complete we enter the briefing room (our station with a computer and a printer is just outside) introduce ourselves to the cabin crew and we brief them on the flight details and we would normally conduct a joint briefing where we would talk about a particular issue that is relevant on our flight or has occurred recently.
This includes, for example, what actions are required in the event of a toilet fire, how would the communication work and then we would detail what our actions and thought processes would be in the flight deck especially on the subject of a diversion and how long that may take if we are mid-Atlantic.
We confer with the cabin crew regarding the use of cabin crew jump seats to allow extra staff passengers to travel. Today, we decide on allowing all the spare ones to be occupied which is 6. We have 2 upstairs on the upper deck, 2 at door 2 right and 2 at door 4 right. Once out of the briefing room we decide what order (if any) we would like staff to be on loaded into the jump seats, this is always the Captains authority.
We call flight management and tell them this information so they can start planning to issue jump seat boarding cards to allow some of our staff colleagues on the flight.
After this we proceed to security and go through as a whole crew together. Our flight today operates from Terminal 3 so we have to catch a bus across to the aircraft. The company stipulate timings for everything to try to ensure an on time departure so we have to be at the bus at a certain time and the cabin crew have to be ready to board at a certain time.
On the bus we have chance to chat to the crew about everyone’s plans for the trip, unfortunately for the cabin crew they only get a 4 day trip which is still 2 nights, they are planning on a bit of socialising and sunbathing and some are visiting the outlets for shopping.
At The Aircraft
Once on the aircraft we liaise with the TRM (turnaround manager) on any issues there may be, the cabin crew complete their checks and we complete ours. The PF (pilot flying – me) will normally enter the data into the FMC, PNF/PM (pilot not flying – the captain today) will perform the setups on all the panels, calculate take-off performance through our ACARS system along with the ATIS (the latest weather information for Heathrow detailing runway in use).
The heavy pilot completes the external check of the aircraft as well as our cockpit security checks including our toilet and bunk rest area which are all enclosed in the flight deck.
Departure Time Management
Time management is crucial here, typically we will only be on the aircraft 40-45 mins before departure so there is a fair amount to do and we normally agree a time we would start briefing, the briefing normally takes around 15 minutes including what we call the critical data entry procedure which is where we enter all the performance in terms of take off thrust setting, speeds, clearance and setting up the Mode Control Panel into our Flight Management Computers.
Getting a long haul flight ready for departure is literally an event. There are so many people and processes involved and you only need one process to fail or the smallest issue to arise and the flight will go late, this is compounded by capacity issues at Heathrow whereby it is quite usual to close the doors on time and ask for push and start only to be told we have a start up delay due to congestion.
The briefing focuses on identifying threats and talking about how we can avoid, trap and mitigate them, it is another opportunity to go over any recall / memory items and revise which pilot does what. The briefing is very important as an effective briefing involves everyone and resolves any ambiguity.
If I have spoken about various threats and what I will do to avoid them and one of the threats actually occurs then everyone knows what the other person has said they will do and if they don’t do it then they can verbalise it straight away without hesitation.
There is no time wasted with one pilot thinking ‘I wonder if he is going to do that, or ask for this’. Although we operate strictly to our company SOP’s there are many ways that things could be done and many pilots have slightly different thoughts on various emergencies, little things they may do or ask for which could help, so it’s also good to talk about these.
A Rejected Take-Off?
An example would be turning the aircraft or stopping straight ahead in the event of an RTO (rejected take-off) with an engine fire warning. It can be useful to turn the aircraft in strong winds to stop the wind blowing the fire and fumes onto the fuselage, however it may also be prudent not to turn such a large aircraft on a 45 metre runway as there is little room to manoeuvre.
Turning could also restrict access for emergency services on the paved surface and slides would be deployed for passengers to land into the grass. Lots of things to consider.
The briefing is interactive with the heavy pilot also playing a part although the briefing is always led by pilot flying.
Today we get the call from downstairs in the cabin from the cabin crew member in charge stating that there are customers missing at the boarding gate and the TRM has instructed the ramp team to start looking for their bags so that they can be offloaded. It appears we will not be going on time.
Our TRM changes our TOBT (this is a target off blocks time which enables ATC to better plan ground movements). Eventually the passengers are located before we find their bags and they are allowed to board the aircraft, we get the doors closed and I do a welcome onboard PA to everyone.
With the PA our company requires us to state several items as mandatory requirements including introducing the flight crew team and my companies policy on safety and security which includes the recommendation for customers to keep their seat belts fastened whilst seated even when the seat belt sign is off.
On long haul we always recommend that customers fasten their seat belt over their duvets or blankets to avoid being disturbed by the crew if the we have to put the seat belt sign on at short notice.
Closing the Doors
We confirm the doors are actually all closed by our pictorial diagram of the aircraft doors on one of our screens. I then speak to Air Traffic Control stating our aircraft type, stand number, latest weather information identifier (this is a letter of the alphabet and the information is called an ATIS), QNH pressure setting, PDC (confirmation we have received a pre-departure clearance) and confirmation that we are ready. Unfortunately we are then given a 10 minute start up delay on stand. I communicate this to our ground crew that are waiting on the tarmac to push us back.
Pushback & Taxy
Eventually we get going 20 mins late. We pushback start all 4 engines, run the before taxi checklist and get our taxi clearance. At Heathrow different ground controllers have different areas of responsibility so they will only clear you to the limit of their authority before transferring you to the next one.
We are departing from runway 27L and once we start to reach some of the holding points for the runway we can see there is at least 12 aircraft ahead of us. It has taken us 12-13 minutes to taxi the aircraft to this point and it looks like we will have a further 15 minute wait before it’s our turn to take off, the joys of Heathrow!
Tasks During Taxy
We do a mini-brief update to see if any conditions or parameters have changed for take off and revise the crucial parts, we run the before take off checklist and receive a message from the cabin crew that they are secure for departure in the cabin.
This message is conveyed initially by each crew member stationed at the doors on the left hand side of the aircraft over the phone to the senior crew member who then instructs the crew to take seats for take off, she then presses a button on her panel and we get an electronic message in the flight deck stating the ‘cabin is ready’.
Once we are all ready for departure and I have the park brake set I do another PA to the customers updating them on the reason for the delay at the holding point. On the ground we try to do PA’s to the customers as often as possible to keep them in the loop with what is going on, there is nothing worse when you’re sat on an aircraft as a passenger with nothing happening and no information.
It’s finally our turn for departure, we check the clearance with each other from ATC to ‘line up and wait 27L’. We check visually for traffic on approach and also check our navigation displays for TCAS (Traffic Collision Avoidance System) traffic.
Once lined up you have to be ready to depart as soon as ATC clear you as airports want to try and maximise their capacities for traffic on the runways, if everyone took 15-30 seconds to set thrust, over a day it could mean some aircraft not being able to depart later in the day.
We check the wind direction and speed, ATC will read us the wind with the take off clearance but there are also wind socks we can use.
Now comes one of the best parts of the job, this bit never gets boring! ATC give us take-off clearance, we set our elapsed time clocks to run, and I stand the thrust levers up, confirm engines are stable and then press the TOGA buttons on the top of the 4 thrust levers, the thrust levers then set the take off thrust automatically, considering the weight of the aircraft the acceleration still amazes me.
At this point in my head I’m thinking about stopping the aircraft in an emergency and almost reciting my actions in my head. I’m transferring my eyes to outside to keep the aircraft straight and the wings level, whilst looking inside checking my PFD (Primary Flight Display) for the speed and also the EICAS (Engine Indications Crew Alerting System) for the engine parameters to ensure they are normal.
There are several emergencies I can call stop for and the Captain can call stop for anything he/she likes but normally we would only stop for major emergencies like an engine failure, any fire on the aircraft, wind shear warning, take off config warning, blocked runway or some sort of control restriction. Stopping an aircraft this size is a major and challenging manoeuvre.
With any minor items it is normally safer to continue the take off. The pilot monitoring (the Captain today) calls 80 kts which is just under 100mph, this is a check to ensure I am still alive and I’m not incapacitated but it is also a check to remind us that after this point we are more “continue” minded and we are only going to stop the aircraft for something very major.
I receive the call of V1 (take off decision speed) which I acknowledge by taking my left hand off the thrust levers as we are now committed to taking off, V1 is the last chance a decision can be made to stop the aircraft without us going off the end of the runway. Whatever happens now we are taking off!
At the call of rotate I gently pull back on the column and rotate the aircraft into the air. The rate is 2.5 degrees a second and my target pitch is 15 degrees. The Captain calls positive rate – this ensures we are safely climbing away from the ground before retracting the landing gear, I then call ‘gear up’ and he raises the landing gear. The gear provides a lot of drag so as soon as it can be retracted the better as we can improve our climb performance.
We are heavy so we climb slowly at around 1,000ft per min. At an altitude of 1,000ft we have to perform a noise abatement procedure which involves accelerating normally only a few knots (we took off at 160kts which is around 185mph) to retract one stage of flap, we reduce power from take off thrust to climb thrust and climb away with flap 10 out until we reach 4,000ft at this point we then accelerate further and retract the flaps.
Typically out of London we may not get continuous climb so we may have to level off at an intermediate level or altitude.
At this point we are thinking about other aircraft, descending towards us, we can avoid this threat by managing our rates of climb. Once cleared above transition level we set a standard pressure setting on our altimeters and at 10,000ft we accelerate to our climb speed which is 320kts today.
The captain turns off all the external lights and we have a discussion regarding whether it is safe to switch the seat belt signs off. There looks to be some weather we may need to fly through so we hold off on the seatbelt signs until we get higher. The cabin crew (unless we have said otherwise) automatically release themselves to commence their duties.
After we climb through 20,000ft we release our heavy pilot to commence his rest in the bunks in the flight deck. This is a bit like a small cabin on a ship with bunk beds, we have lighting and heating controls with pillows and sleeping bags.
In the Cruise
At cruising altitude we start our paperwork, monitor the aircraft systems and discuss contingency planning, we will look at the weather and notams for en-route airfields, our first available one is Shannon in Ireland so we plot that on our navigational displays and have a quick look at the ILS chart for the approach in use which is onto runway 24.
We send off an oceanic clearance to Shanwick control. Effectively there are tracks for all aircraft planned to cross the Atlantic or we could be planned on a random route that our company has chosen. The tracks are modified every day and during the day they go east to west and at night west to east as that is where the majority of the traffic movement is.
NAT Tracks & Weather
The tracks are planned to avoid any weather if possible whilst taking advantage of the wind as best as possible, flying towards the US and Canada you can expect to have headwinds so we pick routes where the headwinds are least outside of the jet streams and on the way back we pick tracks that are in the jet streams to take advantage of the tailwind.
To give an example we would expect the flight time coming back from Vegas to be at least 90 minutes quicker. There is no radar over the Atlantic so air traffic control plan aircraft at different levels, speeds and tracks to keep separation, you must maintain the track and the level although there may be an opportunity to change level later on.
The cabin crew call is every 30 mins to check we are ok and vice versa and this is normally done over the phone and is an opportunity for us to brief each other on any situation that may be arising. We continue to monitor the aircraft systems, including the temperature in each zone of the aircraft, fuel checks and planning and contingency planning. We revisit the actions and plans if we were to have an engine failure.
We then get to choose some lunch from a menu and the cabin crew on the upper deck bring this in for us. Entry to the flight deck is monitored, they would usually call us to warn us they are coming and we have cameras around the door to check it is clear before electronically unlocking and opening the door. There is also a keypad by the door and the cabin crew can request entry through that, however, we can always accept or deny entry.
I plan the rest for each pilot, today we get 2 hours and 50 minutes each. So effectively the heavy first officer will cover our breaks as he/she takes the first rest, we have an alarm that wakes him up in the bunk area and he would come out and sit in the Captains seat and my seat to cover each of our breaks in turn.
In the bunk sometimes I sleep, sometimes I may read a book or watch a programme on my iPad. Our bunk area on the 747 is great, it can only be accessed from the flight deck and is very quiet and dark so really helps us get some rest. During low workloads it is much better to ensure we all rest so we are all awake and alert for the approach and landing when the workload is higher. The pilot flying will normally choose which break they would like to have. I decided to take the middle break.
Crossing the Atlantic
Crossing the Atlantic we speak to air traffic control through our HF radios and through our FMC, it is a little like text messaging and it’s called CPDLC. We have to get a clearance to avoid weather and we have a dedicated frequency 123.450 which we tune up so that all pilots in a similar area can talk to one another, it’s not for idle chit chat but more for warning others about weather or turbulence.
Half way across the Atlantic we switch to Canada air traffic controllers. The flight plan today has us routing towards Goose Bay which is quite far north and even after making landfall in Canada there are not many options to land in an emergency. The routing has us eventually turning south into the US over Minneapolis and then towards Salt Lake City approaching Nevada and Vegas from the North.
Before heading off for my break I head off for a walk around the aircraft to stretch my legs and chat to the cabin crew to check they are all ok. It is a good way of picking up on an issues as we cannot see their body language when we speak on the phone. Inevitably you may get chatting to some customers, I also quite like to grab some chocolate to keep the energy levels up from our club kitchen which is a buffet area in the Club World galley where there is sandwiches, ice cream, drinks, biscuits and chocolate that you can help yourself to.
As I mentioned earlier we are full today so even half way through the flight there are a lot of people standing up, drinking and being quite loud, especially in world traveller cabin.
The cabin crew down there are very busy and running out of alcohol I suggest putting on the seat belt signs for 20 minutes to give them a chance to tidy up, bring the noise levels down a bit for other customers and give them a chance to get organised for the next service.
Half the cabin crew are on their breaks and we have bunk beds in the roof of the aircraft above the rear galley.
The Rest Area
It is quite a claustrophobic area in the cabin crew rest area, there are spiral stairs that are steep that lead up into the roof from the rear galley, once in the roof there are 4 normal seats for crew to sit in if they wish or if you head further towards the front of the aircraft there are numerous bunk beds with sleeping bags, duvets and pillows. I head back up to the flight deck to start my rest and change into my pyjamas and manage to get my head down for 90 mins or so.
I am woken up to the ‘ding dong’ that means the end of my rest, like any alarm clock its not a popular noise. We always try to get out of the bunk rest facility quickly so the next guy can get in to maximise their opportunity to sleep. We can get changed again and cleaned up in the flight deck whilst the other pilot continues to fly the aircraft.
Back in the seat we are now in Canada and whilst flying the aircraft, checking weather and notams for alternates and liaising with the cabin crew regarding turbulence reported ahead, the other SFO and I are planning the Arrival procedure, Approach and taxi in to Vegas.
The first thing I do is work through all the notams, some of the notams indicate taxiways are closed or have reduced wing span clearances, I mark these with a red high marker on my iPad chart app.
I work out the performance for each runway in terms of how much tailwind we can take at our estimated landing weight and what setting on the auto brake we can use with either idle, partial or full reverse. We use reverse thrust to save brake wear and if it is a short turnaround it stops the brakes getting overheated. If we are using the auto brake on the landing roll then we will not stop any sooner by using reverse as the braking distance will be the same, controlled by the auto brake.
We check the Airport notes which is under the AOI section of our charting app, we also check our companies briefing notes about the airfield. We are expecting to do a non-precision approach onto either 19L or 19R, both these runways are on the short side for a 747. (this is sort of let down procedure via imaginary points in the sky or by using other less accurate navigation aids – normally we use ILS approaches at most airfields which is an accurate system giving us lateral and vertical precision guidance to the runway).
Typically we are using runways around the world in excess of 3,000 metres. The 747 can land no problem on shortish runways in fact we could just about do around 1400 metres with max braking in normal conditions. However, as it is such a large aircraft if it is a shortish runway we need to take particular care in ensuring we land in the touchdown zone and preferably on the markers.
The non-precision approaches are both in excess of a normal 3 degree glideslope, this all points to the threat of a runway excursion (running off the end of the runway) which can be created by a fast un-stable approach with a potentially long landing.
This is further compounded by ATC keeping you high due to restrictions on radar vectoring due to terrain and helicopter traffic corridors that head towards the Grand Canyon. We will also expect to be cut in very tight for a short final approach as ATC cannot vector us further than 6NM north due to Nellis Air Force Base being on the extended centre line. These threats will be discussed in the approach briefing.
Passenger Medical Issue
Next, the cabin crew call with a customer in Business Class who is experiencing chest pains. We have a contract with a facility called Medlink. This a facility where we can call them up on our satellite phone and obtain advice and direction on how to proceed. They have specialist aviation doctors available to talk to. They will also give a recommendation on continuing or diverting the flight.
Medlink know all the medical supplies we have onboard and also know the training our cabin crew have. In the event of a diversion they can advise on the suitability of a diversion airfield in terms of their medical facilities on the ground.
If we had a choice we would rather divert to an airfield that a nearby full facility hospital where our customer can receive the care they require very quickly.
Luckily today we have a doctor onboard who is assisting the cabin crew and Medlink recommend us to just keep the customer on oxygen and monitor them, with the doctors assistance we are advised to continue to Las Vegas unless the customer gets worse. Medlink arrange a medical team to meet us on arrival.
We have made up some time but are till going to arrive late into Las Vegas my next job is to speak to our ground teams at Vegas and make a plan for some of our connecting customers.
They advise they believe the customers will still make their connections with some assistance so we arrange ground staff to meet some of our customers at the top of the airbridge on arrival and we pass this information on to the CSM who passes on the information to the customers.
Next it is time to wake the Captain up, we order him a nice strong coffee to help him get back in the zone as quickly as possible, we brief the approach, arrival and taxi in, along with contingency’s and how we are actually going to fly the RNAV approach. This looks at the modes we shall use on the mode control panel, discuss alternates and their weather and suitability.
We also revise some memory action manoeuvres that are pertinent to this approach including TCAS RA (a mandatory command to manoeuvre to avoid another aircraft) in the landing configuration due to helicopter traffic and GPWS Pull up (a mandatory command to climb the aircraft with max thrust to avoid terrain) due to the surrounding terrain.
We discuss missed approach procedures and chose a high speed exit to the runway that if we have not got the wheels down by that point we shall initiate a missed approach. At 40 minutes to go I do a PA to our customers detailing the arrival time, route and weather information.
We always put the seat belt signs on a minimum of 20 minutes before landing to give the cabin crew the time they need to secure the cabin. For example, if the electronic seat adjustment in First or Club World fails then the cabin crew have to manually restore the seats to their upright positions for landing.
Approach & Landing
After the briefing and PA has been completed I give control to the Captain who will fly the approach for my landing. We are one of the few airlines to fly monitored approach procedures, most airlines operate this way in low visibility procedures but we do it all of the time. It has the advantage that both pilots at the controls are involved in the approach and the objective for the captain today is to get the aircraft to 1000ft on the approach meeting the Stable Approach Criteria. I would then take control and land. It really is true (like the saying) a good approach leads to a good landing.
Today, we are cleared by ATC to descend with the arrival. In the US this means we are free to descend at our own discretion but must meet all of the restrictions on the arrival. Our FMC has this all programmed and we have checked it so the autopilot should do this automatically for us in VNAV mode. We then get given a short cut which reduces are track miles, so therefore we have descend the aircraft a little more aggressively by using the speed brake.
The speed brake just gives us more drag so if we descend at the same speed with the speed brake out then we can achieve a higher rate of descent. The captain has to work hard as today vectoring by ATC is quite poor and they keep us higher than we expected. We do manage to get on the vertical profile and lined up with the runway at 4 miles out fully configured with the landing gear and flaps. We get the auto-callout from the flight deck speaker system of ‘1000’ telling us we are at 1000ft Radio altitude – actual height above the ground.
Disconnecting the Autopilot
I visually check we have met all of the stable approach criteria and call ‘stable, visual, I have control’. I take control and disconnect the autopilot and auto throttle, its a little windy, we have around 15kts (20mph) of wind from the left, so the speed is a little unstable which requires constant thrust corrections.
At around 100ft, everything looks ok, at 30ft I flare by raising the nose slightly, I squeeze the right rudder pedal to bring the aircraft in line with the runway and counter act the rolling motion by a small amount of left aileron down. The main gears touch the runway firmly, I lower the nose gently and the captain ensures the speed brake deploys and gives me partial reverse thrust on all 4 engines. Its important to lower the nose gently as the nose wheel is not designed to support large forces unlike the main gear, first class is also directly above the nose wheel!
Rate my Landing
So my days work is almost complete and although we have been working hard for the last 12 hours or so, I know according to our passengers the quality of my work will be assessed in the last 30 seconds! It wasn’t the best landing, but it wasn’t awful either.
I jokingly give it 6/10, but the Captain gave me 7/10 – clearly he wants me to buy the first round of drinks! Even more so on larger aircraft it is so important to land at the right place and at the right speed more so than the actual touchdown feel, however every pilot will also tell you we would like to land at the right place, the right speed and make the wheels just kiss the ground! Unfortunately it doesn’t happen every day.
The final part is navigating the airports taxiways with ATC and it is very busy. We must ensure we stay alert and focussed until the aircraft is on stand with the park brake set. Approaching our stand we start the APU to give us electrical power when we shut the engines down and instruct the cabin crew to place the doors into manual mode – this means when the doors open the slide will not deploy.
Each crew member will be responsible for their own door, but once they have placed their own door into manual mode they proceed across to the other side of the aircraft and check their colleague has correctly placed their door into manual mode. The CSM will then call each left hand door for them to confirm they have each got 2 doors at each station in manual mode.
Setting the Park Brake
I set the park brake and the captain switches the generators to the APU and shuts down the engines and switches off the seat belt signs. We run the shut down checklist and then I do a farewell PA to the customers. After this the three of us conduct a post flight review, this is effectively a de-brief and we discuss what went well, what didn’t and why it didn’t and how we can improve for next time.
We are then informed that some of the customers would like to come and visit the flight deck so we welcome a family with some young children, they sit in the seats with our hats on (I hope mine didn’t have too much hair gel stuck in it!) and we take some photos for them and answer any questions they may have, we always like to have a bit of banter with the passengers.
Leaving the Aircraft
Once we have secured the aircraft, all the passengers are off and the cabin crew have completed their checks we all get off the aircraft together handing authority over to the engineering team.
We head to immigration, which, yes it can take us just as long as the normal passengers to navigate through. The longest I have waited is about 2 hours, but not here today in Vegas, we are all through in about 25 minutes, we collect our suitcases and head towards our transport which is a large coach.
To the Hotel
We tip the driver for loading all of our cases, mine is always the heaviest, I overpack! Have a short de-brief on the bus with the cabin crew, but more importantly we discuss what the plans are for our ‘down-time’.
We have got to the hotel at just before midnight UK time, but it is only 2pm here in Vegas. Luckily Vegas is one of our shortest transfers, it only takes 10 minutes from the airport, but a lot of our destinations can take up to two hours due to poor infrastructure and congestion.
Once in the hotel, we collect our keys which are normally all ready for us, some hotels will give us a mini-briefing on the facilities etc, but here we just grab our keys and head up to our rooms. We get discounts on food and sometimes drink in our hotels, the hotels want to encourage us to spend our money there, but rarely do I stay around the hotel.
After a long day the key is to dump your bags, jump in the shower, touch base with home and get down to the bar, if you sit or lie down you don’t get back up again! My work is finished and I can enjoy the Vegas casinos, hotels and pool parties (even if I am too old!)!
It’s been about 17 hours since I left my house this morning so it’s a long day. We not get 3 days off here before heading back to London. In this time we are free to do what we want.
I hope my wife doesn’t read this as she will confirm her thoughts that going to work is like a holiday!
Hopefully this gives you an insight into a typical day at work. If you have any further questions please select the ‘Ask an Airline Pilot a Question‘ under the home menu on our webpage and one of will get back to you.
How many days off do pilots get a month?
A look at how much of the month pilots actually work and how this varies between airlines
How many days do pilots usually get off a month?
Commercial airline pilots typically have between 9 and 15 days off a month without including any leave, although this depends on the airline and type of operation.
Short Haul Operations
Short haul pilots might either be on a fixed rostering pattern or a variable roster. A fixed roster means you work a set number of days on, then have a set number of days off. For example at Ryanair, most of their pilots work 5 days on then 4 days off. easyJet pilots work 5 on – 4 off – 5 on – 3 off. British Airways short haul pilots work a ‘random’ roster with no set pattern.
There are both benefits and disadvantages to a fixed and variable pattern. One allows you to know exactly what days you will have off all year, but if you want a day off that doesn’t normally fall on your off day, you will need to use your annual leave to have it off.
On a variable roster pattern, which is often used at leisure airlines, you will likely work much harder in the summer than the winter due to the operational requirements.
Therefore, you will have anywhere between about 9 and 13 days off a month as a short haul pilot, depending on the airline and the type of operation.
Long Haul Operations
Long haul pilots typically get more days off a month than their short haul counterparts as they spend more time away from home. The days off must also allow for adequate rest following multiple time zone crossings often in the middle of the night. As a long haul pilot, you would typically get between 10 – 15 days off a month, again depending on the airline.
A Pilots Perspective on the Differences Between Short Haul and Long Haul
Our pilots have operated both short haul and long haul, see the pros and cons in this blog.
A pilots perspective on the differences between short haul and long haul.
Having flown both short haul and long haul and in this blog I will try to highlight the differences with as little bias as possible. Apart from the obvious differences long haul flights typically (although not always) will be operated by larger wide body aircraft and short haul flights generally use narrow body aircraft.
There are exceptions to this rule, some airlines operate from the eastern seaboard of US and Canada into the U.K using narrow body aircraft. Likewise Emirates and some Japanese airlines have used large wide body aircraft on domestic or regional routes of less than one hour flight time.
From a pilots perspective the short haul and long haul operations are totally different. I guess you could say the short haul lifestyle is more of a regular shift work job as with most short haul operations you will go to work and be home the same day and you would sleep in your own bed every night.
Some short haul operators do nightstop crews, but most do not. Sleeping in your own bed every night is not to be underestimated! Every pilot is different and their views on what constitutes a good life style can be totally different. I have colleagues that have tried both short haul and long haul and our opinions seem to be divided.
Workload & Time Off
If you’re a long haul pilot you will probably find yourself reporting to work on average around once a week, this may enable you to live quite some distance from your home base. In fact some pilots may live in a different continent! In a short haul job with no night stopping you can expect to be travelling into work 4/5 days in a week, although most report times would be outside of commuting rush hour times.
Long haul pilots will generally get more days off per month simply due to restrictions on days off after a duty that has a considerable time change.
Under EASA regulations some destinations that have large time differences will require 4 local nights back at home base to re-adjust time zones before you can report for duty again. Long haul pilots also burn up their maximum hours in a shorter period and all pilots have maximum monthly and yearly hour limitations. For example this week I will be reporting for a 3 day trip to Vancouver from London and in those 3 days I will have flown in excess of 19 hours. It would be unusual for a short haul pilot to accrue that amount of hours in 3 days.
Short Haul Before Long Haul?
Typically newly qualified pilots will fly short haul operations at the start of their career simply to give them more exposure to the operation. In short haul I could potentially fly up to 6 sectors a day with at least 3 of those being my sectors so I would perform the take off and landings.
You also become familiar with destination airports very quickly as you may end up flying to some of them weekly. In long haul sometimes I may run out of recency and end up being rostered a quick 30 minutes in the simulator to carry out some take off and landings to renew my currency. On an average month I may only conduct 1-3 take off or landings a month let alone in one day!
You can become rusty very quickly in long haul operations and although you may have been operating for over 20 years you will never really become very familiar with any destinations or regions.
In my opinion it really is the lifestyle that is different. I have flown short haul and long haul and it really depends on what you and your body prefers.
Who gets paid more?
Typically you will be paid more long haul as you require more experience and operate larger aircraft with a responsibility for more passengers. You will also fly for the bigger, national flag carriers.
Some struggle with jet lag on long haul operations and the nights out of bed flying. If your body struggles to cope with this you are less likely to be able to take advantage of the extra time off long haul gives you.
I personally much prefer the long haul lifestyle to short haul. I remember often operating a run of 4 early starts in a row, these duties would require me setting my alarm clock for around 3am and on the longer days I may not get home until 4-5pm due to traffic. It would then be a case of grabbing food and going to bed as I was too tired to do anything else. So although I was home every night I couldn’t do anything else, but I did generally sleep well in my own bed!
An advantage of long haul is not only would you get on average around 14 days off a month compared with 9 or 10 short haul, typically many flights land early in the morning. I’m typically back in bed for 09:00 and up at lunchtime to have the rest of the day free on top of my other days off.
My experience has certainly been that I get more time off to do what I like on long haul than short haul. Long haul flying can impact on families as every time you go to work you are typically away for at least 2 nights although it could be up to 4 or 5, some families or should I say partners this may benefit their relationship and others may struggle with this. I know my partner and I quite enjoy having some time apart so we are not always in each other’s pockets, or at least I think that anyway!
The Pace of Operations
The style of operations are very different too. Long haul pilots are generally much less current and the pace of the operation is a lot slower. Briefings will be longer, you probably won’t have flown with the rest of the crew before. Most decision making processes take longer in long haul too, you have more passengers and crew to manage and a diversion airport could be hours away.
In long haul we are less exposed and perhaps get less frustrated with delays, if we are delayed once outbound it generally only affects that flight, whereas in short haul you are dependent on the aircraft arriving on time for you to start your day on time and delays can accumulate throughout the day, sometimes adding hours to your finishing time. Air traffic control slot restrictions are rare on long haul as it is so difficult for different ATC authorities to co-ordinate.
Normally destinations are more varied in long haul. When I flew short haul I was lucky enough to nightstop in some terrific European cities, but many pilots would only get 30mins to an hour at the destination airport before operating back to their home base. On long haul one trip I could be in South Africa wine tasting in their summer and our winter and the next trip I could be lying on the beach in Rio de Janeiro. It is difficult to get those experiences on short haul, however whilst you’re indulging yourself in these experiences you’re many miles away from your loved ones.
In summary I believe each individual is different and if the opportunity arises you should try both. Most of my friends and colleagues prefer long haul for many of the reasons I have given above, although probably its just the wine tasting and the sunbathing! The pilots that have tried long haul and don’t like it would normally be because they struggle to manage the sleeping in bunks onboard and the jet lag / time zone impact on your body which would then have a negative effect on their lifestyle outside of work.
Having done both, my vote goes to long haul.
Do pilots sleep in flight?
A look at the rules and regulations regarding pilots sleeping in flight.
Do pilots sleep in flight?
The simple answer is yes, pilots do and are allowed to sleep during flight but there are strict rules controlling this practice. Pilots would only normally sleep on long haul flights, although sleep on short haul flights is permitted to avoid the effects of fatigue.
Pilot rest can be separated into two categories; ‘Controlled Rest’ where the pilot sleeps whilst in the cockpit at the controls or ‘Bunk Rest’ where sleep or rest is taken either in the passenger cabin (in a seat reserved for the pilots) or in the dedicated pilot bunks available on long haul aircraft.
This is standard practice throughout the industry as it is proven to improve flight safety by ensuring the flight crew are well rested for the approach and landing. Needless to say, at least one pilot must be awake and at the controls at all times.
Controlled or bunk rest is more common on long haul flights that are scheduled to operate overnight.
On most long haul aircraft there are hidden beds where the pilots and Cabin Crew are able to sleep out of the view of passengers.
Some long haul flights require there to be 3 or 4 pilots due to the length of the flight and to allow a suitable sleep/rest opportunity for the pilots. The same two pilots are at the controls for take-off and landing whilst the other pilot(s) will take control for other segments of the flight to given the other pilots an opportunity to sleep. The extra pilots (i.e. the ones not at the controls for take-off and landing) are often referred to as ‘Heavy’ crew.
Most long haul aircraft have bunk beds available for both the Pilots and Cabin Crew. These are generally hidden out of view from passengers. If no bunks are available, commercial passenger seats in business or first class are set aside for the pilots to ensure a good standard of rest can be achieved.
Shortly after take-off, the first pilot(s) will head to the bunks to sleep for a set period of time, before rotating with the other pilots. The rest is typically distributed evenly amongst the crew, before all the pilots return to the flight deck approximately 1 hour before landing.
Controlled rest allows one pilot at a time to get up to 45 minutes of sleep during periods of low workload (in the cruise). This is to promote a higher level of alertness levels during periods of high workload, for example the descent, approach and landing.
The principle of controlled rest is to allow the pilots to boost alertness and energy. It’s the equivalent of a “power nap”. Ideally controlled rest should be between around 10 – 20 minutes as this limits you to the lighter stages of non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep. Sleeps between 30 and 60 minutes can result in sleep inertia when you wake up, which will leave you feeling groggy similar to a hangover.
There are set rules that have to be followed when taking controlled rest, such as:
- Controlled rest should be discussed and agreed to by both pilots
- Controlled rest should be limited to a predefined period between around 10 – 40 minutes.
- Only one pilot should take controlled rest at a time and that should be in his/her seat but with the seat pulled back away from the controls.
- Once the resting pilot is woken he should avoid operating the controls for a set period of time to ensure he/she has fully awoken and is alert. They should also be awake for at least 15 minutes before any high workload situations such as initiating the descent.
- The resting pilot should ensure the operating pilot is adequately briefed to enable the other pilot to carry out their duties during the single-pilot operation.
There is a risk that the non-resting operating pilot may fall asleep too, to mitigate this the cabin crew are informed control rest is taking place and regular contact is made between the operating pilot and the cabin crew.
Some aircraft also have a facility whereby a warning is sounded if none of the controls / switches / buttons have been touched for a specific time period.
Pilot Sleeping Example
Lets consider this example in terms of what is safer with resting / sleep onboard:
Two pilots are operating a night flight to Tenerife from Manchester. The report time for work is 20:00 on Monday evening, the flight is planned to leave Manchester at 21:00 with a block time (flight time and taxi time at both ends) of 04:30 giving a scheduled landing time of 01:30.
The turnaround time is 1 hour meaning the return flight departs at 02:30. Again it’s a block time of 04:30 back to Manchester giving a scheduled landing time of 07:00, the pilots would then be off duty at 07:30 and have to drive home. This is all if the flights are running on schedule.
Naturally the pilots would sleep normally overnight on Sunday (although may have operated that day to) into Monday and they would try to either lay in or go back to sleep in the early evening for a couple of hours before reporting for duty depending on how long their commute is. Effectively they are losing one nights sleep.
The question is would it be safer to allow each pilot a 30 minute nap on each sector to ensure they are more alert or to not allow this procedure at all?
Now you have the facts what do you think?
Yearly Training Requirements for Pilots
A look at what airline pilots need to be check & tested for every year
Airline pilots are probably tested more than any other profession. Every 12 months, pilots must complete the following:
- Pass a medical assessment ensuring they are fit to fly (reduces to every 6 months when above the age of 60).
- Complete a ‘Line Check’. This is a bit like a driving test, but in the aircraft. An examiner observes you operating the aircraft to ensure you are compliant with company rules and regulations and are doing the job to a proficient standard.
- Every 6 months, pilots must go into the simulator where they practice emergency procedures whilst being assessed by an examiner over a couple of days.
- Complete technical testing to ensure they maintain a high level of technical proficiency on their aircraft type.
- Complete Crew Resource Management (CRM) Training. This is where pilots are taught about how human factors can affect flight safety.
- Aviation Security Training
- Winter Operations Course
- Dangerous Goods Examination
If the pilot fails any element of these, he or she is removed from flight duties and could ultimately lose their job.