Imagine you're in a large jet on a long route on a major airway -- say, for example, you're in a 747 going LHR-JFK at night. It's dark, you're over the Atlantic, and ATC has cleared you to just keep on heading along at FL330 (or equivalent) for another ~1500 nautical miles.

As it has throughout much of the flight, the autopilot is effectively flying the plane. There's nothing on the weather radar, no adverse meteorological effects expected, and ATC ensures that aircraft are well separated. In short, other than occasionally changing radio frequencies, there is very little for you to do.

Just a week ago, you were in the simulator, practicing spin recovery, instrumentation inop procedures, engine failures epsilon before V1, and all sorts of other fun things that required your attention. In your spare time, you're a private pilot and enjoy flying VFR at lower altitudes with the occasional bit of aerobatics mixed in, and practicing what to do in all sorts of rare eventualities at odd attitudes. In other words, you like flying planes. Now, your job is to check that the sophisticated flight computers are still flying this plane, and that ATC have done their job properly. They are, and they have. For the next few hours, you're going to be doing nothing but sitting in a chair watching blackness roll past. You can't even talk to the guy next to you about the weather -- there isn't any!

How do long-haul pilots cope with boredom on long, uneventful segments? Is my above scenario completely not plausible (aside from the lack of weather) -- is there always something meaningful to do during a 7+ hour long flight? I would expect that pilot boredom or distraction would be a safety-critical situation, yet I cannot imagine a situation that involves two humans sitting in chairs in a small room for a long period of time where they will not be bored or distracted at some point.

Do airline transport pilots ever "hope" for "something interesting" to happen?

  • 7
    $\begingroup$ The sterile cockpit doctrine is essential for crucial flight phases such as take-off, landing and approach phase. During cruise, it's a bit more lax... $\endgroup$ Mar 24, 2015 at 9:43
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    $\begingroup$ There is always turbulence in a flight. $\endgroup$
    – kevin
    Mar 24, 2015 at 10:24
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    $\begingroup$ See that button marked "Mode T" on the FMC menu? Tetris. $\endgroup$
    – Simon
    Mar 24, 2015 at 13:59
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    $\begingroup$ long-haul pilots cure boredom by reading Aviation.Stackexchange $\endgroup$
    – rbp
    Apr 9, 2015 at 13:13
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    $\begingroup$ LHR-JFK isn't flown in the dark. West-bound flights happen during the day and east-bound flights are overnight. Also, in the middle of the Atlantic, there is no ATC. $\endgroup$ Jan 18, 2016 at 17:17

2 Answers 2


From what I know, airline transport pilots do not get large chunks of free time on a typical long-haul flight which you described. They may get small intervals of free time (e.g. 10-20 minutes), but for sure, not hours. They do need to constantly monitor if the airplane is flying on the correct course, on the assigned altitude, remaining fuel amounts and several other tasks, even when auto-pilot is engaged.

So what do pilots do when they are not flying at all?

Primarily, it depends on company policies. Delta does not allow pilots to do anything not related to flying the airplane:

"You can't read a novel, but you could read a manual about procedures or about the airplane," ... "You can't read a newspaper. You can't use a laptop. That's strictly prohibited."

But generally speaking, pilots engage in causal chats between themselves and flight attendants (when they visit the cockpit)1.

When there are more than two pilots, one is generally allowed to get some rest. They can also browse through magazines or read some books or flight-related material, but mostly stay alert and available. Some will study for an upcoming proficiency or rating. One of the two pilots can go to the bathroom too. Getting locked out depends on pure luck.

So in a nutshell, there are several different activities/tasks pilots will engage into, each different for a particular flight.

This is a funny little anecdote I recently read, which fits this discussion very well:

Murphy's law grants you a heap of emergencies once you start feeling bored in the cockpit.

1: As a ordinary passenger, I don't visit the cockpit, but I have noticed a few times what the flight attendants do. When they have free time, they have many things to talk about between themselves. Sometimes, they engage in small talk with passengers. They check their schedule and flights for the remainder of the day. Although the duties of flight attendants and pilots are entirely different, there are a bunch of activities which require their attention, and they can pass the time without getting too bored.

  • $\begingroup$ So in short, they take breaks and have a pulsatile workflow -- which probably improves their ability to concentrate. Good to know! $\endgroup$
    – Landak
    Mar 25, 2015 at 15:39
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    $\begingroup$ When there are more than two pilots, one is generally allowed to get some rest. If by 'get some rest' you mean 'sleep,' that is location-dependent. It is strictly forbidden in the U.S. for anyone in the flight deck to sleep. See this answer for more information. $\endgroup$
    – reirab
    Jul 3, 2015 at 2:03

First, for most long-haul flights, the total flight time is beyond one crew's daily maximum allowance (which is usually 8 hours in any 24-hour period; a flight from Sydney to DFW can exceed 16 hours so two crews and additional compensatory rest periods for all crewmen are required during and after an ultra-long-haul). These flights carry two flight crews; one is flying the plane, the other is sleeping. While not on duty, the crewmen are expected to do anything but think about flying the plane; read, play games, sleep (definitely sleep) etc.

"Extended Range" variants of airliners used for nonstops in excess of a single crew's capabilities must, by FAA regs, have facilities for crew rest. Here's an article showing a few examples. While tucked out of the way by necessity, most are actually quite comfortable, often way better than first-class. Crews usually transition one pilot at a time to keep at least one person out of the way while people are getting into and out of the flight deck.

Second, with the autopilot engaged, regulations require only one pilot to be in control of the plane (called the "pilot flying"); the other one, the "pilot not flying", can read, use electronic devices, go to the lav, even power nap. This is called "in-seat rest" and is allowed by FAA/ICAO regs for short periods of time; there is a procedure to follow for a pilot to start and stop in-seat rest (basically making sure it's safe to do so and that the other pilot is awake, alert and knows the other pilot's entering a rest period) and there must be a certain overlap time where both pilots are not in in-seat rest.

Third, your more modern airliner flight decks can integrate music players into the pilots' headsets, "ducking" or muting the music when there is radio traffic. This is allowed even for the pilot flying; the only requirement is that the pilot be able to hear and understand ATC transmissions, but ATC will not be constantly talking to the flight crew (far from it; they have way too much work to do regarding all the other airplanes operating in their airspace). So, the pilot flying can hook up his iPhone and jam out in the headset while keeping watch on the plane. Such devices can only be used during the same periods of flight the passengers would be able to use theirs, and the same requirements of an "airplane mode" etc apply to the crew's devices.

  • $\begingroup$ Just out of curiosity, can you give an example of an airliner with audio input for personal electronic devices? Any examples of operators allowing their use? $\endgroup$
    – Waked
    Jul 3, 2015 at 0:34
  • $\begingroup$ It appears, actually, to be less an integrated system of the plane and more an adapter that inlines with the headset connection. Here's one example for GA-style headsets: marvgolden.com/mg-26a-amplified-cell-and-music-adapter.html. Here's an aviation headset with the audio input built in (no info on whether it has a ducking circuit;l I'd guess not): mypilotstore.com/MyPilotStore/sep/7364? $\endgroup$
    – KeithS
    Jul 3, 2015 at 0:57
  • $\begingroup$ As far as their use on commercial airliners, because the FAA regs give the PIC the final say over whether a device will or will not interfere with his aircraft's systems (and therefore can or can't be used), the captain can allow himself to use his own device. I would bet most airlines wouldn't want the PR nightmare of widespread public knowledge that their pilots were listening to music while flying, so I'd imagine it's banned by most company policies, but a glance through Google's forum results indicate professional pilots skirt these policies fairly often... $\endgroup$
    – KeithS
    Jul 3, 2015 at 1:04
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    $\begingroup$ @KeithS The pilot "giving himself permission to use it" only applies to the regulations regarding whether a portable electronic device will interfere with the avionics or other such important systems. They cannot give themselves permission to violate SOP (unless they deem it would be unsafe to not deviate from SOP, in which case they have much more latitude... but I think that would be a very hard argument to make for using your mp3 player. :) ) $\endgroup$
    – reirab
    Jul 3, 2015 at 2:07
  • $\begingroup$ I've not heard of anyone using two full crews, maybe SF to India. But typically there will be a 3rd pilot and they take turns rotating in the crappy bunk. $\endgroup$
    – user959690
    Dec 20, 2018 at 19:39

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