Sweet dreams in the sky. How pilots rest and recover

By Carmel Beham-Brecht

After a long-haul flight that leaves seemingly everyone exhausted, many passengers wonder the same thing: “How can pilots fly for such long hours.  Aren’t they terribly (even dangerously) tired?”

Like any other aspect of commercial aviation, rest requirements for flight crews have been thoroughly researched. And the results are reflected in strict regulations that ensure pilots’ fitness for duty. Sleep, as you likely know, is an essential function that allows your mind and body to recharge.

Without enough sleep, the brain cannot function properly. You may have experienced acute fatigue once or twice in your life, perhaps even on a flight when you couldn’t fall asleep no matter how tired you were.  As a passenger, that would be taxing—but you could get away with it.

Pilots and aircrew, however, cannot. They are in charge of the safety of the flight and must be at full capacity and alert in order to deal with any situations that arise throughout the flight.

Managing Fatigue with ‘Rest Rules’

Airlines go to great lengths to ensure that pilots are well rested and able to perform to the best of their ability. It all starts with scheduling. There are strict rules for how many days and hours a pilot can fly in a day, a week, a given month, and a full calendar year. These rules are enforced by each country’s aviation authorities (in the U.S. it’s the Federal Aviation Administration and the Department of Transportation), and are carefully monitored and recorded.

Airlines even monitor the amount of time you were awake outside of your circadian rhythm (the human body’s natural wake and sleep cycle). They schedule rest days between trips to allow pilots to recover.
On a trip, pilots have mandatory rest periods after a certain amount of wake time. If it is a short-haul flight, this rest happens at the hotel at the end of their duty. If it is a long-haul flight or overnight flight, pilots are provided with a comfortable place on the airplane to rest.

Depending on the aircraft model, this could be a reclining chair, a bunk bed, or a single-person sleep pod. In such flights, the requisite number of pilots rises to four, so that at any given time there are two pilots on the controls.

Rest requirements calculation table. Source: ALPA
The airline monitors all work hours with reference to the pilots’ anchor or base country so that it takes into account the inevitable effects of crossing time zones and resulting jetlag.

Pilots’ own responsibility

But on top of all these airline regulations and mechanisms, the pilot still has the ultimate final say about their physical state.

It is formally mandated that any pilot who does not feel sufficiently rested be able to report their fatigue, and they will be removed from their flight assignment and allowed a full 10-hour rest period in which to recover. As with any job, an airline pilot, and aircrew as well learn to live with the odd hours, the time zone changes, and the lack of routine.

Each crew member finds their own way to adjust and balance their duties. But having these rest rules and fatigue programs in place has definitely increased the safety of commercial aviation and created a healthier, more sustainable work environment