Do pilots sleep in the cockpit?
A Pilot Gives Us A Peek Inside A Major Airline’s Private Quarters
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One of my good friends asked me, “How do you have the energy to go out on layovers every time you fly an international trip?” I explained that we sleep on the plane. That statement was followed with wide eyes and raised eyebrows. “You sleep on the plane?” I’m sure she was shocked and concerned that the pilots were sleeping in the cockpit.
I explained that most long-haul aircraft are equipped with rooms for flight crews to rest and nap, occasionally called “condos in the sky.” Others call it “the bunk room” or “the break room,” but the official term is “crew rest area.” Let me pull back the curtain and give you a peek inside of these little-known hidden places on large commercial long-haul jets.
Where Are The Pilots’ Private Quarters?
The airline I work for has two long-haul jets, the Boeing 777 and the Boeing 787. We call the B777-300 the “queen of the fleet.” She is the largest, most comfortable, and has the best crew rest compartments of any aircraft.
There are many regulations and crew staffing required for long-haul flying. The scheduled flight time dictates how many pilots and flight attendants are required on a specific flight. Typically, a long-haul flight scheduled under 12 hours will require three pilots and at a minimum nine to 11 flight attendants. A flight over 12 hours requires four pilots.
The captain usually chooses the break positions for the pilots. There are always two pilots at the flight controls. The pilots rest and take breaks, then relieve the flying pilots equally until the end of the flight. The pursuer, who is the lead flight attendant, coordinates the flight attendants’ breaks based on when the services for the airplane are conducted, seniority, and work position of crew members.
What Is a Bunk Room?
Flight crew members each have their own designated rest areas. Our B777-300 has two very large flight crew rest areas. The pilot rest area is above first class, and the flight attendant break area is near the rear galley. Let me start first with the pilot crew rest area. Behind a discreet door are steep stairs leading into a secret, quiet place to rest. Once on the landing of the stairs, a cabinet opens with mirrors, hangers, and a large storage area for extra linens. The landing is designed for a tall person to stand and not touch the ceiling.
Continue to climb the stairs and you will see two large, leather recliners with more than enough leg space to stretch even the longest of legs. A large video monitor is available to watch one of 300 movies, games, or documentaries. There is lighting, conditioned air, music, and linens available.
Should you choose to have dinner in the bunk area, we can utilize a dumbwaiter to bring food up, easing the navigation up the steep stairs. If you want to catch a nap or just lay down, there are two private bed areas with curtains to create even more privacy. The beds are about 6.5 feet long, about 40 inches wide, and about 36 inches high. We have a crew member who is designated to “make the bunks up” before each flight. I must say we are spoiled with great linens. We have duvets that are wrapped on one side with a white cotton sheet and a gray quilted bedding material.
When it’s your time for a break, you are greeted with a bed that is made! Linens and a duvet are set on the mattress with two white clean pillows. If you want to listen to music, there is a monitor to plug into. You can dim the multiple lights in the bunk to read, relax, or stream movies using the Wi-Fi on the jet to watch on your own tablet. When two pilots share the bunk, one usually gives the other a few minutes of privacy in order to change. On a flight of less than 12 hours, the pilot on break has the entire bunk area to themselves.
There are regulations on how the crew rest areas must be constructed, and each airline can set the configurations when they purchase the aircraft. The current regulations state that areas must be free from intrusive noise, odors, and vibrations that have an effect on sleep. Prior to the creation of specific crew rest areas, a first-class seat was designated for a crew member and a heavy curtain was placed around the seat. Unfortunately, these seats were neither quiet nor private. The seats were located near a galley, and during a service, noise easily spilled through the curtains, and some passengers would poke their heads around the curtains.
Where Do The Flight Attendants Sleep?
The flight attendant bunk area on the B777-300 is quite impressive. It contains eight beds, four on each side, and is above the rear galley. It reminds me of a long bowling alley. The bunk areas each have large heavy curtains for privacy and to reduce noise. Each bunk has its own environmental controls and lighting. These beds are also outfitted with duvets and pillows. All beds are equipped with seat belts for an extra layer of security in case of turbulence. Every bunk area has phones to communicate with the entire aircraft at any time.
Who Gets To Go On Break First?
So just how do we determine when and who gets to go on break, and for how long? For the pilots, we determine how long our actual flight time is minus the take-off procedures and climb. We don’t count any of the taxi time from take-off and landing. We also factor in time for the last pilot on break to be back in the cockpit, well before we start a descent.
If it’s a three-person crew, we divide the entire flight by three. The first pilot, called “first break,” leaves the cockpit and has a predetermined time to return. One slick feature on our flight computer is a “reminder” function. We insert the wake-up time minus about 10 minutes and preset all the breaks. When the timer notifies us, we call the bunk area and give the pilot their 10-minute wake-up courtesy call. It seems to work quite well!
Some pilots request 15 minutes before their break is over, as they might want to freshen up in the restroom or take more time to get dressed. Most pilots remove their uniform shirts and sleep in something more comfortable. During the cold winter months, I jump into a cashmere sweatsuit and really get comfy! Ultimately, all pilots must return, be in uniform, and be at their flight position well before the descent into the destination airport. The purser creates the flight attendants’ breaks with the same logic as the pilots.
The big difference for them is how many services are offered for our passengers on a flight. The purser has to factor in drink services, meals, more drink services, and a pre-landing meal. The coordination can be different for all three classes — first, business, main cabin extra, and coach. Each cabin class has a unique service.
How To Get The Best Sleep In The Bunk
Learning how to manage sleep, breaks, and eating on a long-haul flight is an art. Most seasoned flight crew members have figured out what works best for them to make the most of sleep opportunities. I love to watch movies, but I force myself to lay down and nap even if it isn’t a deep sleep. I pop on my Bose noise canceling headphones and sometimes forget that I am on a jet zooming over 500 miles an hour and wake quite rested. These secret rooms create a safe environment for your flight crews to get needed rest so they can be alert and focused as they arrive at a distant land far from where they took off!
Now You Know!
Next time you are on a long-haul flight, see if you can find the secret doors. Although you can’t visit the rooms, know they are there. The long-haul aircraft of today are designed to travel farther and longer than ever before.
Regulations about crew rest, duty days, flight times, and extremely long flights have created a safe, private, and secure area for flight crews to get the necessary rest to make sure you get to your destination safely. I must admit, first-class sleepers are a fabulous way to take the edge off of a 12-hour flight, but being able to sleep and rest quietly in our “condo in the sky” is the best!
For more on Airports and Flying, check out these articles:
- Why You Should Always Listen To The Safety Speech, Even If You’ve Heard It 100 Times
- The Unique Way Travelers Are Saving Time And Big Bucks Flying To Mexico
- 10 Best International Airlines Our Readers Love
- Christy Karsten View Full Profile
Christy Karsten is an airline pilot who loves to travel and explore the globe. When she’s not exploring the world on a jet, she’s adventuring the road less traveled, shopping, and enjoying local foods. She has been to five continents; with each trip, her bucket list continues to overflow while her list of destinations continues to expand. At her home in Southern California, she spends her time working out, hiking, and researching her next global journey. Depending on the day, this wife and mother is either an international airline pilot or a travel-hungry globetrotter.
Where Do Pilots Sleep On A Plane?
Where do pilots sleep onboard aircraft during long haul flights? Depending on the plane and the trip, pilots have access to a private bunk area near the cockpit, a private ‘cabin,’ or a sectioned off business class seat.
Why do pilots sleep on planes?
At first, it might seem a little alarming that a pilot would sleep on an aircraft; after all, their job is to fly the plane. But pilots are just like you and me and need to take breaks, or even sleep, depending on how long the flight is.
For a shorter flight, a pilot won’t leave the cockpit except for a bathroom break. But when the flight is over eight hours, pilots will swap with a relief counterpart and then hit the hay before landing — more on that below.
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There are three different classes of rest area for cabin crew and pilots, depending on the length of the flight.
- Class 3: A spare seat that can recline and has a footrest. Generally not used for pilots as they would just remain in the cockpit or not have a break for such a short flight.
- Class 2: A lie-flat seat with a privacy curtain. Located in the business class cabin near the back.
- Class 1: A separate cabin away from the passengers and isolated from cabin noise.
Most long haul flights are categorized as Class 1 and will require the aircraft to have a separate area away from the passengers for the pilots.
Where do pilots sleep onboard long haul aircraft?
Thus, most long haul aircraft have a special rest area for the pilots, behind a generic electronically locked door at the front of the plane.
The specific location varies between aircraft, but for most designs from Boeing (the Boeing 777 and 787), there is a special compartment accessed by a ladder above the first two rows of first-class that has room for the pilots. For Airbus aircraft, it is located next to the cockpit above first class like Boeing.
For the bigger Airbus A380, the pilot rest is located above the cockpit door on the lower deck, but before where the second level cabin begins.
Some pilot sleep areas come with private compartments (more significant than just the bunks provided to flight attendants), lights, first-class pillows and duvets, and even isolated temperature control. Depending on the aircraft (and fit-out by the airline), some rest areas have entertainment screens. Next time you fly, your relief pilot could be upstairs watching the same film as you!
When do pilots sleep on aircraft?
On a regular long-haul flight, say around 12 hours, there will be three to four pilots.
- Pilot A will be selected as ‘Pilot Flying‘ and will perform takeoff and landings.
- Pilot B will be selected as ‘Pilot Monitoring‘ and will need to be present during the takeoff and landings as the first officer.
- Pilot C and additional pilots are selected as ‘Pilot Relief‘ and will step in during the flight to relieve any pilots moving to the rest area.
All pilots need to be in the cockpit for takeoffs and landings, and it is against FAA regulations to be in the rest areas during these times. In a 12 hour flight, approximately ten flying hours (time removed for takeoff and landing) will be split among the three or more pilots equally for rest.