What happens when a commercial airline pilot wants to remove himself from a flight a short time before takeoff (say an hour or less)? He obviously can't be forced to fly, and there may be very good reasons he shouldn't.

What is the penalty for the pilot?
What are the passengers told if it is something embarrassing, like a drunk pilot?
How long does it take to get a replacement pilot?

Surely the exact answers depend on the airline, but in general what happens? What regulations govern this situation?

  • 5
    $\begingroup$ Note that in theory there is almost certainly not a penalty, unless the pilot is an idiot: the pilot is actually obliged NOT to fly if he feels he is unfit through illness or similar $\endgroup$
    – Jon Story
    Feb 28, 2015 at 10:11
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ Similar, if not duplicate: What if pilot feels too tired before his flight? $\endgroup$
    – Farhan
    Feb 28, 2015 at 13:57
  • $\begingroup$ In order to ensure safety of the flight the pilots are really protected and is rare having penalties (I can't however give you a more detailed answer). The drawback is that sometimes pilots use work-to-rule as a way to pressure airlines in negotiations (like salaries). But that's a different topic. $\endgroup$ Feb 28, 2015 at 14:49
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Not a dupe. This is asking specifically about airlines. $\endgroup$
    – Keegan
    Mar 1, 2015 at 8:00

2 Answers 2


There would be a great deal of variability on what happens depending on the airline, whether or not it was unionized, what country it was in, who the pilot was, and the specific situation of the flight involved.

The scenario of an hour or less is a truly rare occurrence. The system is set up to prevent such happenings. The last two carriers I worked for had a 2-hour showtime. If a pilot hadn't checked in or been picked up by that time, the search immediately started for a replacement.

The only occurrence of an approximate one hour replacement need that I'm personally aware of was when a captain failed a breathalyzer test at his 2-hour show time. Given the confusion of the moment, it was well less than 2 hours when they started the search for a replacement. There was no ready reserve, and no management pilots available that were current, so they had to start stealing captains from flights due to depart later. I was due to operate JFK to AMS around 2 hours after the JFK to TLV flight they needed a captain for, so they stole me off my flight, which meant they had to get someone else for that, etc.

There is good reason for a 2-hour showtime other than just making sure a pilot is there. There is work to be done, and that work has to be done by someone. In this case, a non-current management pilot did that work, including my cockpit flow. I went directly into cockpit, sat down, and called for the before start checklist.

There was in this instance a good reason to do what could be done to avoid taking a delay. Numbers of flights leave JFK for Europe and the Middle East in the evening. If you take a delay, you may well get a lower altitude than planned because someone ahead of you has grabbed it; everybody's going over the North Atlantic track system. If that happens, you need more fuel, which is more cost, etc.

What would happen to a pilot causing a one-hour replacement depends on so many things I won't even try to address that other than to say that it could range from no penalty whatsoever to immediate termination. In the case above, the captain was terminated, and since he was in his late 50s back when the age 60 retirement rule was in effect, it was the end of his airline career insofar as U.S. airlines were concerned.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ In this case, a non-current management pilot did that work, including my cockpit flow. I went directly into cockpit, sat down, and called for the before start checklist. Did this cause any worry for our intrepid pilot since he hadn't personally verified all the checks, or is there simply enough trust in the system and the checklists that if 'they' say it's been done, you roll with it? $\endgroup$
    – FreeMan
    Mar 2, 2015 at 17:35
  • $\begingroup$ @Terry happy retirement! I hope you enjoy your post career flying as much as you did full-time :) $\endgroup$
    – Cloud
    Jul 12, 2018 at 13:26
  • $\begingroup$ @FreeMan There was sufficient trust in the system, or rather should I say in the individual who did it even though he wasn't current. Plus, there was an experienced f.o., soon to upgrade, with whom the checklists had been run. $\endgroup$
    – Terry
    Jul 12, 2018 at 17:52

If a pilot removes themselves from a flight then the airline will attempt to find another pilot to replace them. Sometimes this can be done almost immediately if someone is available there at the airport (sometimes called "ready reserve" or "airport reserve"). Otherwise another reserve will have to be called from home. The amount of time given to a reserve pilot to appear at the airport varies by airline but is typically around two hours. This is normally called "short call reserve". If no one is available on short call then the flight will most likely be cancelled. There are other scenarios whereby a pilot can be removed from another flight to operate this one but this is less common.

A pilot that removes his/herself from duty may face company discipline depending on the circumstances.

There are really no relevant government regulations (in the United States, at least) other than those requiring a pilot to be fit for duty (and within legal duty and flight time restrictions).


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