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Wait, are pilots allowed to sleep during flights?



After authorities said two pilots fell asleep during a flight in Indonesia, a detail in the report stood out: One asked the other whether it was okay to take a nap, then snoozed for nearly an hour.

Can pilots really do that?

The answer depends on where the plane is flying and which aviation authority oversees the airline. Some countries allow pilots to sleep in the flight deck (a.k.a. the cockpit), while others — like the United States — forbid the practice. The regulations apply to U.S. airlines whether they are operating domestically or abroad, and foreign airlines in U.S. airspace.

Experts say flight crew on U.S. airlines are allowed to sleep on longer flights in designated rest areas, but not in the cockpit — and only with additional pilots on hand to fill in.

Delta spokesman Morgan Durrant said that long-haul international flights include extra staffing for the flight deck and rest facilities for pilots and flight attendants. In an emailed response to questions, Southwest Airlines said “napping by on-duty crewmembers is not allowed for us.”

Patrick Smith, a commercial pilot and founder of the Ask the Pilot blog, said in an email that U.S. crews on long-haul flights will work on rotating shifts so they can sleep.

“A flight from the U.S. to Europe, for example, will usually have three pilots,” he said. “At any given time, a minimum of two pilots are in the cockpit, and the third pilot is on rest break.” He said four pilots would be assigned to longer flights and would work in teams of two.

“The rest quarters can be a cordoned-off seat in first or business class, or a bunk room,” Smith wrote.

Hassan Shahidi, president and CEO of the Flight Safety Foundation, an international aviation nonprofit, says the scheduled rest is “highly regulated” and “an important practice for those long-haul flights.”

According to the Federal Aviation Administration, “bunk sleep” should be scheduled to minimize the number of hours of extended awake time for the “landing crew.” The aviation authority said sleep opportunities should be limited to no more than about six hours during a flight.

The other kind of pilot rest — which is forbidden by FAA regulation — is in-seat cockpit naps, or “controlled rest” in aviation lingo. When done correctly, Shahidi says this follows a regulated process as well. The International Civil Aviation Organization says cockpit naps, if allowed, should be “taken by pilots in response to unexpected fatigue.” They are not meant to be built into a schedule and are generally for shorter flights without designated rest areas.

“It’s not supposed to be used randomly, … like, ‘Oh, I’m tired, and I’d like to sleep,’” Shahidi said.

Part of the process includes notifying additional cabin crew that a nap will take place so they’ll check in after a specified amount of time. Shahidi said pilots on duty would never be allowed to nap at the same time, as they did on the Batik Air flight, because it is “absolutely a dangerous thing to do in flight.”

“There is no procedure that allows that,” he added. “The fact that this happened in this case clearly indicates that something went awry.”

Even on airlines where naps are allowed, they are supposed to be carefully structured rests rather than impromptu cat naps. Canada’s regulations say that a “controlled rest” needs to take 45 minutes or less, take place during the cruising part of the flight, finish at least a half-hour before descent begins and include a clear handoff of responsibilities. The pilot also needs to spend 15 minutes awake before taking over any duties.

“Only one flight crew member can rest at any given time,” the regulations say.

This year’s incident was not the first time the entire flight deck was asleep. In 2008, the pilots of a Go airlines flight in Hawaii both fell asleep after leaving Honolulu and flew 26 miles past their destination of Hilo, the National Transportation Safety Board said.

“For about the next 18 minutes, [air traffic control] attempted repeatedly to contact the pilots as the airplane continued on autopilot on a constant heading at cruising altitude,” the report says.

The NTSB has called fatigue “a serious issue affecting the safety of the traveling public in all modes of transportation.” The board said nearly 20 percent of 182 major investigations that were completed between 2001 and 2012 identified fatigue as “a probable cause, contributing factor, or a finding.”

The FAA spells out strict rules about rest for pilots, who are not allowed to fly more than 30 hours in any seven consecutive days or 100 hours in a calendar month. Pilots must get nine consecutive hours of rest for less than eight hours of scheduled flight time, and 11 hours for nine or more hours of flight time.

U.S. airlines and unions pushed for the FAA to allow cockpit naps about 15 years ago after the idea was scuttled in the 1990s, the Wall Street Journal reported.

In 2019, two Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University professors wrote that cockpit sleep could improve airline safety. The authors wrote that their research showed that consumers appeared wary of the prospect, while pilots were more enthusiastic.

“Perhaps it’s time to listen to the pilots we trust to fly these airplanes and let them rest when they need to — within reason, and so they can fly more safely,” the authors wrote.

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