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What do pilots actually do on long flights?

What do pilots do during the cruise?

Charlie Page is a senior first officer on the Boeing 787 Dreamliner with over 10,000 hours of flying experience, both around Europe on the A320 family and worldwide on the B787. He is also a freelance writer, contributing to a range of print and online publications.

Dec. 30, 2019
12 min read


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It’s quite often said that the job of a pilot is very much like that of an anesthetist. It’s pretty busy at the start and end of the operation, but in the middle it’s a bit more relaxed. With the intensity of the departure complete, the atmosphere in the flight deck relaxes.

The pilots instruct the Autopilot to do the dogs work of keeping the wings level and flying the route entered into the Flight Management Computer (FMC) on the ground. Whilst one pilot is always responsible for ensuring the Autopilot is doing exactly what they expect it to do, it creates spare capacity for the crew to attend to other matters.

On a typical 10-hour flight from Los Angles to London, there’s plenty to be done whilst up at 37,000 feet. It may seem like the pilots are just there for the ride, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Here’s what is going on in the pointy end whilst you’re trying to get some sleep.

Fuel and Time Checks

It will normally take around 30 minutes for a heavy 787 Dreamliner to climb from the runway to its initial cruising altitude. During this time, we normally do very little except concentrate on flying the aircraft and talking to ATC. Once level in the cruise, we can start to divert our attention onto other tasks. The first is to make a fuel check.

As part of our preflight procedure, we check the flight plan issued to us by the company’s operations department. Not only does this gives us information as to how much fuel we will need for the entire flight, it also breaks it down into how much fuel we require at any given stage of the flight.

Passing the first waypoint after the top of climb, it is the Pilot Monitoring’s (PM) job to make a fuel check. They will look at the fuel system display and write down on the flight plan what the actual fuel on board is. They will also write down the time.

By comparing the amount of fuel actually in the tanks against what we need to reach our destination as per the flight plan, we can calculate how much fuel we expect to land with. The time check also enables us to see whether or not the flight is progressing as expected. Losing time may indicate that the tail winds are not as strong as expected.

Fuel and time checks are then completed every 30 minutes for the rest of the flight. By keeping a vigilant eye on the fuel we can determine if we are using fuel faster than expected. If so, we need to work out why. Quite often, it’s because of stronger head winds or because ATC are keeping us at an altitude lower than our optimum. For these fairly regular cases, we always carry a certain amount of contingency fuel.

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Rarely — and I mean very rarely — a discrepancy in the fuel checks may be a result of a fuel leak. In this situation, there is a regimented checklist that we must follow to ascertain if there is indeed a fuel leak. Depending on where the leak is coming from, we may have to shut an engine down. If the leak cannot be controlled, an immediate diversion is made before the situation gets any worse.

Diversion Planning

At all times of a flight, a good crew will always be thinking, «What if?» What if an engine was to fail right now? What if we develop a fuel leak? What if a passenger gets ill? They will always have a plan of action up their sleeve.

Part of this plan of action is always knowing where the most suitable diversion airport is. I use the phrase most suitable, as the closest airport may not necessarily be the best option. You’ll see why shortly.

Two hours into the flight from Los Angeles to London, the aircraft is approaching Aberdeen, South Dakota.

Whilst Aberdeen does have an airport, we need to be sure it’s somewhere that we can not only land the aircraft, but also get airborne again. The first thing we will check is the runway length. At just 2,100 meters, landing a heavy 787 would be tight. There may also issues with parking and having steps big enough to reach the door. All in all, not a great option.

Off to the left is Bismarck, North Dakota. With a 2,700-metre runway, it’s a viable option, but on checking the weather, heavy snow is reported. Maybe not the best place to divert to.

A little further along the route is Minneapolis, Minnesota. It has a couple of runways over 3,000 meters long, the weather is great and the ground facilities cater for large jets like the 787. A suitable diversion airport. To aid our situational awareness, we’ll put a ring around the airport on our map display.

Oceanic Clearance

The airspace over the North Atlantic is some of the busiest in the world. However, as there is no radar coverage, there is a system in place to ensure that all aircraft remain safely separated for the duration of their crossing.

To aid this flow, a number of tracks are created by ATC each day. These enable pilots to take advantage of the most favorable winds going eastbound and avoid the strong headwinds going westbound. As there are hundreds of aircraft crossing the Atlantic each day, they must not only be separated laterally, but also vertically. Normally in 1,000-foot increments.

As the pilots near the entry point to the oceanic track, they request a clearance from ATC to fly at their chosen altitude and speed. These requests are collated by ATC and a clearance is issued to each flight.

On receipt of the clearance, both pilots must then stringently check that the route, altitude and speed that the aircraft has been programmed to fly matches the clearance. If there are any changes, normally to the altitude or speed, corrections must be made.

On rare occasions there is a bottle neck on one of the tracks, and a re-clearance onto another track may be made. This involves some serious workload to accurately change the route in the Flight Management Computer and, once again, check for any errors.


A major part of long-haul flying is managing tiredness. Some flights can be more than 17 hours long, so ensuring that we perform at our best during the most critical stage of the flight — landing — is of utmost importance.

To help us achieve this, sleep is a major part of the flight. On the longer flights, there will be one and sometimes two extra pilots. This enables us to take it in turns to get some shut eye.

That said, sleeping in the cabin is far from ideal. It’s often noisy with the cabin service, sometimes too hot and normally too bright to get any quality rest. Fortunately, most long-haul aircraft have a dedicated area where the crew can rest.

On the 787 Dreamliner, the Overhead Flight Crew Rest is located above first class. Accessed by a secret door, it gives way to two beds, which are furnished with anything from a blanket to first-class bedding, depending on the airline.

The isolation of the OFCR means that it is quiet, dark and has the facility to control the temperature. All in all, it makes for a great place to get some quality sleep in preparation for landing.

Avoiding Weather

As mentioned before, the Autopilot is great for keeping the wings level but will only do what the pilots instruct it to do. This normally involves following the planned route. This is fine for the most part, but when there are thunderstorms ahead, the pilots need to take action.

As commercial pilots, our main role is to keep you the passenger safe and comfortable. Staying clear of thunderstorms is part of this remit. Most, if not all, passenger aircraft have a weather radar system. This sends out electronic pulses which bounce back off water droplets (clouds) ahead. The system then picks these return signals up and displays them on our screens.

Using our theoretical knowledge and experience, we then have to decide on the best route to keep us clear of the weather. This may just be a small jink left or right to avoid an isolated storm cell. If we can, we’ll always try to avoid flying downwind of a thunderstorm. As the wind whips around the cell, it can create turbulence in this downwind area.

However, in equatorial areas, there can be bands of thunderstorms hundreds of miles wide. With these clouds often reaching 50,000 feet, going over the top is not an option. The only course of action is to pick a route around them.

As part of the preflight briefing, we will study the weather charts to see if this eventuality is likely. If so, we will carry extra fuel to allow us to safely deviate around the storms, even if it’s by adding hundreds of miles to the route.

Cruise Climbs

In my previous article on fuel, I explained that a long-haul aircraft may depart with around 70 tonnes of fuel in its tanks. When the flight takes off, there is an optimum altitude at which the aircraft will fly for its weight.

As the flight progresses, fuel is burned by the engines, which reduces the weight of the aircraft. As the fuel on board reduces, the lift available becomes greater than the weight, so the aircraft is able to climb to altitudes where the engines are more efficient.

So, as the aircraft gets lighter, we can request from ATC that we climb to a higher altitude. This is why on a long flight you may start at 35,000 feet, a few hours later climb to 37,000 feet and then some hours later climb to 39,000 feet.

Arrival Planning

As the flight nears the destination, it’s time for the pilots to start thinking about the arrival. The latest weather conditions are obtained, including the runway in use and the type of approach which the crew can expect to fly.

The crew will perform a landing distance calculation for the given conditions, taking into consideration the wind speed and direction, temperature, runway length and how slippery the runway may be. Once satisfied that there is enough distance to stop safely, they will carry out an approach brief.

The aim of the brief is to ensure that all pilots in the flight deck for landing understand how they plan to fly the approach and landing. We will discuss the main threats, often referred to as the ‘6 Ts’ – Terrain, Thunderstorms, Track miles, Tail winds, Traffic and aTc.

We will identify how any of these factors could cause problems during the approach and then come up with a plan on how we will deal with them. By planning ahead, we avoid being surprised and making poor decisions in the heat of the moment.

Bottom Line

Contrary to popular belief, pilots don’t just sit there with their feet up during the cruise as the Autopilot does all the work. Whilst the workload is not as intense as during takeoff and landing, there is still plenty to be done.

Keeping tabs on the fuel status is a core part of the cruise workload. Keeping a good situational awareness of suitable airports around the aircraft is also extremely important. As these pass behind on the route, new ones must constantly be updated.

Whilst the cruise isn’t as busy as takeoff and landing, there’s still plenty to be done to ensure the safety of all those on board.

How Often Are Pilots Home?

airline transport pilot

The life of a pilot is a glamorous one, full of flying to far-flung locales and discovering new places on layovers, but it is also a lonely one. Pilots have to spend lots of time away from home, which affects their relationships with family and friends. How often do pilots actually get to be home to enjoy the lives they earn thanks to their hard work?

Table of Contents

  • How Often Are Regional Pilots Home?
  • How Often Are Long-Haul Pilots Home?
  • What About Pilots Who Commute?
  • Does the FAA Mandate How Many Hours Pilots Have to Be at Home?
  • What About Non-Airline Pilots?

Airlines and the FAA have strict regulations around how often commercial pilots have to be at home. The answer depends on a few factors. Pilots who fly short routes can go home every night, while long-haul pilots usually work 15 days a month and get 15 days off.

Keep reading to learn more about the often-punishing schedule that pilots keep.

How Often Are Regional Pilots Home?

When looking for work-life balance, pilots who fly short or regional routes probably have the sweetest deal. Most short-haul pilots have multiple flights a day, but because these are only a few hours, they can go home every night if they want.

Other short-haul pilots organize their schedules so that they work four or five days a week out of the base, then spend two or three days at home. This is a similar schedule to most 9-5 jobs, although, depending on the location of the base, these pilots may still spend several nights a week in a hotel.

How Often Are Long-Haul Pilots Home?

Pilots who fly longer routes tend to spend more time away from home. FAA regulations state that pilots have to have a rest period after flying flights longer than seven hours. Usually, pilots will fly a long-haul flight, then have a day or two in the international destination to rest and potentially explore the city before flying back. This means that long-haul pilots often spend at least three days a week away from home.

While this is exciting for those who like to travel, it does mean that long-haul pilots spend less time at home because they are doing their mandatory rest periods in between flights. Long-haul pilots can expect to spend 10–15 days a month at home. For younger pilots, this is often not as big a problem, but pilots with families can struggle to maintain those relationships and routines.

What About Pilots Who Commute?

The figures mentioned above are for pilots who live near their bases. However, many pilots live further away from their bases for family reasons or to save money. Even though the pilot’s time off starts after the plane parks, that’s not time they will spend at home.

Some pilots live hours away from their base and have to commute after work, sometimes even flying. Flying as a pilot is not as simple as flying as a passenger. Even though pilots fly for free, they fly standby, meaning they have to wait for an empty seat to pop up on the plane. Getting home could start with waiting hours at the airport for a free seat to open up on the flight.

Pilots who choose to live far away from their base and commute have to balance this decision with the reality that this means spending less time at home because airlines don’t count commutes as working hours. Some pilots manage this by arranging their work schedule so that they work several flights in a row, which is easiest for short-haul flights that have a shorter mandatory rest period, and then spend an extended period at home.

Does the FAA Mandate How Many Hours Pilots Have to Be at Home?

The FAA has limits on how many hours pilots can fly without a break and how many hours they can fly a month. Airline pilots usually fly 75 hours a month and have to put in around 80 ground hours per month. The rest is mandated rest so that pilots can be fresh.

However, the FAA does not mandate how many of those rest hours have to be spent at home. Part of this is due to the frequency of commuting among pilots and because the agency cannot legally mandate how pilots spend their time off. It is up to pilots to arrange their schedules so they can spend the most time at home.

Related Article:

How Long Can Pilots Fly Per Day?

What About Non-Airline Pilots?

For pilots who work other jobs instead of at traditional commercial passenger airlines, the time they spend at home varies. For charter pilots, that depends on the season. During high season, charter pilots can spend as many as four nights a week away from home.

Cargo pilots often fly in rosters and blocks where they’re on duty for nine days at a time and then have a block of five days off, which they can spend at home. Pilots who fly air taxis close to home can come home for dinner every night.

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