How many hours can pilots work a day / week / month / year?
A beginners guide to pilot flight time limitations and how airlines prevent pilot fatigue
How many hours are pilots legally allowed to work?
The limits for how many hours a pilot can work in a day, week or month can be complex and will be prescribed by the regulatory authority for each state. European countries now comply with EASA Flight time Limitations.
The amount of hours pilots can work in one day vary by their time zone acclimatisation, the amount of sectors they are going to operate (number of flights), and how many flight crew onboard (for long haul flights). There are also restrictions on duties that have several early starts in a row or time off required following night flights. There are requirements for a fixed amount of days off during a set period, maximum flight and duty time limits for periods of 7 days, 14 days, 28 days and annually. There are also requirements that state a minimum period of rest (normally 12 hours but can be less or more) between each day of flying.
On long haul flights there is also a requirement for a number of local nights rest at home base / airport depending on the time zone you have been in (if equal or greater to 4 hours difference to home base / airport) and the number of nights you have spent in the different time zone. This is to try to ensure pilots are adequately rested and acclimatised for their next duty.
So as you can see there are many factors involved and some of the regulations are based on scientific research to help prevent fatigue. It is a well known fact and genuine concern in the industry as increased fatigue has a direct correlation to reducing safety as most air accidents are caused by some sort of pilot error at some point and many of these incidents have fatigue as a contributing factor.
The FAA (American authority) made changes to their regulations in a bid to reduce fatigue particularly in the small commuter airlines after the Colgan Air flight 3407 in 2009 accident which was attributed to pilot error likely caused by fatigue. Other air accidents attributed to fatigue include Korean Airlines flight 801, American Airlines flight 1420 and Corporate Airlines flight 1566.
In terms of how many hours a pilot can work in one day you may be surprised to learn that it is normally far higher that Lorry drivers. A flight duty period is one day’s work and that starts from when a pilot arrives at the airport to complete their pre-flight duties, which involves looking at fuel planning, weather and briefing the crew. They then have to get to the aircraft early enough to complete their checks and start boarding customers to ensure an on time departure. Most short haul flights have a flight duty period that would start 1 hour before the flight and long haul is typically 90 minutes before.
A flight duty period ends when the pilot sets the park brake at the final arrival airport. Although the pilots still have work to do after this it is not deemed to be dangerous if they are tired as they are not flying customers around anymore, although they still have to drive home!
A short haul pilot working for a low cost airline would typically do 2 long sectors (flights), 4 shorter ones or perhaps even 2 long ones with 2 short ones after or before.
Airline rostering is a complex business. Airlines have a responsibility to roster pilots work that they can safely complete, however pilots are an expensive to airlines so they also need to get as much work out of them as possible. It is a fine balance to strike.
A typical days work will see a pilot reporting early in the morning for example at an airport in the UK to fly down to the Mediterranean, perhaps somewhere in Spain, they will then fly back and perhaps fly again to somewhere closer within an hour or so, possibly within the UK or close by in Europe.
The maximum flight duty period under EASA regulations for a start time of 0600 or later would be 12 hours. Longer than you thought?
Don’t forget although the flight duty period ends when the park brake is set on the final sector in terms of the legal limits on regulations the pilots still then have to say goodbye to their customers, complete their post flight checks onboard, file any paperwork in the office, clear customs and immigration, get to the car park and drive home.
What happens if the flight is running late? You may have been on a flight and heard the expression by pilots, cabin crew or ground staff ‘pilots are out of hours’. If they are out of hours it won’t be that they are just a little tired and don’t fancy competing the day’s work. It will mean in the example above the duty will have eceeded 12 hours, however even in that case they can legally carry on.
The Captain has the authority to exercise what is called as ‘discretion’. This is an extension to the maximum duty period (12 hours in the case above) if he/she feels after looking at all the factors and consulting the crew on their tiredness levels that they can safely extend their working day. The rules state he / she can extend it by up to 3 hours, but if it appeared the 3 hour extension was to be breached the pilots would have to land at the nearest suitable airport. The Captain can of course refuse to operate into discretion if he / she feels it would not be safe to do so. The Airline is not allowed to put any pressure on the crew to operate into discretion and it is the Captain’s decision only, the airline can only ask if they are willing and able.
Long haul flights are slightly different as they sometimes have more than 2 pilots to allow a longer flight duty period by giving each pilot some rest away from the controls, these areas are called bunks as they are like bunk bed areas normally in the roof space of long haul aircraft. Some long haul aircraft do not have bunk areas so the airline would have to block a seat off (normally a first class or club class seat) so the pilot can get some rest there instead.
If a pilot started early in the morning like the example above and did one flight then the maximum duty period is 13 hours. The increase in maximum flight duty period is due to the fact it is deemed less fatiguing to do 1 flight than 2, 3 or 4. There are also less mistakes likely to be made as they are only setting up the aircraft and departing and arriving once.
Even with this increase in the maximum duty period it would not be long enough to allow some long haul flights to take place. Some long haul sectors have flight times in excessive of 13 hours and that does not include the pre-flight duties, taxi out and taxi in. It is forbidden to plan to use discretion. Discretion is only permitted if unforeseen circumstances occur throughout the day like a technical problem, weather issues, air traffic control delays etc. So as mentioned above airlines can extend the maximum duty period by rostering an additional pilot or sometimes even 2 additional pilots. With one extra pilot and bunk rest facilities onboard the EASA authorities allow an airline to extend the maximum duty period in the example above by an additional 3 hours which would be a total of 16 hours.
Cabin crew have similar restrictions as pilots, sometimes identical limits. The main objective of these regulations is to ensure pilots and cabin crew have the required alertness levels at crucial stages of flight – take off and landing.
If pilots still feel tired during a flight duty period they can opt to have ‘controlled rest’. This is a short period (no longer than 45 minutes) of sleep in the seat at the controls. There are various requirements including the seat has to be pulled back from the controls, the rudder pedals moved forward so the pilot cannot inadvertently move the pedals while asleep, the other pilot must feel alert enough to fly the aircraft, it must be during a period of low workload during the cruise and it is normally a requirement to inform the cabin crew to ensure they keep checking on the other operating pilot.
Most aircraft have systems fitted whereby if no controls are touched or buttons pushed for a period of time an alarm will sound. The maximum of 45 minutes sleep / rest has been scientifically researched to increase your alertness levels for the landing phase of the flight without allowing the pilot to fall into a deep sleep. Once awake again the pilot that was sleeping must not touch the controls for 10-15 minutes until they have fully woken and feel fit and alert once more.
It may sound alarming that pilots have a quick nap on occasions with the rules above applied but it has been proven to significantly reduce fatigue and improve alertness levels for the critical landing phase.
Remember the key objective with any flight time limitation rules is to allow airlines to operate their schedules as efficiently as possible while ensuring pilots and cabin crew are sufficiently rested to perform their duties safely.
Below are examples of cabin crew and flight crew bunk rest facilities on long haul aircraft: