On long-haul flights, there are extra pilots on board so that the flight crew gets a chance to rest. When the pilot in command gets relieved and goes to the rest area, who is legally in charge of the airplane? Is the PIC role transferred to one of the pilots in the cockpit, or is the person who was relieved still ultimately in command? (I'm especially interested in what happens if the relieved PIC feels that the crew is mishandling the aircraft and wants to come back and take control).

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    $\begingroup$ If a situation were to happen where a professional captain felt that she needed to commandeer an aircraft from another professional because of incompetence, someone would probably get fired or arrested upon landing. I don't know what there is any precedence or official rule for this situation. I think common sense would prevail. $\endgroup$ Nov 25, 2016 at 16:50
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    $\begingroup$ aviation.stackexchange.com/a/31429/679 Faa suggest PIC can be changed during flight. I guess the rest depends on each airlines' SOP. $\endgroup$
    – vasin1987
    Nov 25, 2016 at 17:56
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    $\begingroup$ I know that on AF447 the captain went on rest break and assigned the FO that was in the right seat as PIC even though the FO that relieved the captain had more experience. But when they called the captain back to the flight deck they deferred to his authority. $\endgroup$
    – TomMcW
    Nov 25, 2016 at 19:46
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    $\begingroup$ @TomMcW: The way this transfer of PIC responsibility was done has been a contributing factor. See page 169 " Relief of the Captain". $\endgroup$
    – mins
    Nov 25, 2016 at 20:01
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    $\begingroup$ I understand that (a) the PIC is ultimately responsible for the whole flight, including the planning, the route, etc. This responsibility cannot be transferred. (b) If the PIC leaves the cockpit for a rest, he needs to appoint a qualified substitute. The substitute will temporarily act as PIC, but does not become the PIC. $\endgroup$
    – bogl
    Nov 25, 2016 at 23:52

2 Answers 2


The PIC is ultimately responsible for operation and safety, for everybody and everything on board, from pre-flight preparation till post-flight activities.

On long-haul flights there must be a sufficient number of relief crew members to substitute the nominal flight crew. This is regulated in national legislation and implemented in airline standard operation procedures (SOP). Details are apparently different from airline to airline.

The Captain is the highest ranking member of the flight crew, and will be designated as PIC. When the PIC takes a rest, there must be a qualified substitute available. That will be a Senior First Officer (SFO) in some airlines. In any case, the substitute will have gone through a dedicated training.

During the rest of the PIC, the substitute will act as PIC. The sleeping Captain remains PIC, and remains ultimately responsible. If there is an incident during his rest, it would have to be investigated if that incident was (partially) due to earlier decisions, actions or omissions, or if the problem was caused entirely by the relief crew.


Ultimately that the PIC (e.g. the Captain) is responsible for the entire flight. But responsibilities that form that role can be delegated (e.g. to the First Officer) as in the case of the crew member leaving the cockpit. Pilots operator in a type of no-blame culture. One pilot wouldn't be held accountable for another's action unless they knowingly encouraged or instructed them incorrectly whether they were sitting next to them or not.

Even if both crew are in the cockpit, the First Officer is encouraged to take action if they believe the Captain is making a poor decision. There have been accidents over the years where a Captain ruled whilst the First Officer sat there quietly. So, many years ago a cultural change was pushed to help reduce accidents where the outcome was avoidable if the other crew members spoke up.

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    $\begingroup$ Welcome! While the first part is a good illustration of the climate, the answer doesn't tackle yet the legal aspect the OP would like to clarify. $\endgroup$
    – mins
    Nov 28, 2016 at 7:01
  • $\begingroup$ There is no instructions that I can see that the PIC is legally responsible for the malicious intents of anyone else. If the actions were at the direct instruction of the PIC (or company), then consequences would fall back on the PIC (or company). The PIC would be legally responsible for the safe operation of the flight and if someone else contradicted that, then that's their problem. The same scenario would apply in any field. $\endgroup$
    – Adam
    Dec 1, 2016 at 2:55

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