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A couple of days ago, I flew with a popular budget airline within Europe. The aircraft was an A320. It was also a brand new one (only in service since June 2018 and produces 15% less noise and fuel emissions than previous models, or so they told us).

Anyway, onto the question. During the flight, I asked a member of CC if I could meet the pilots after landing, they asked for me and the pilots agreed. They seemed happy to have a chat, I asked them how much hand-flying they had done on the 3 hour flight we had just completed (after reading on here the average for this type is 3 - 7 minutes per flight). The captain sheepishly grinned and pointed at the FO...I turned around and he was laughing. The captain then told me that since the weather was so nice, the FO, who was still fairly new, asked if he could take control. Turns out he ended up hand-flying most of the cruise!

The captain then assured me that pilots don't use passenger flights to 'practice' their skills however, and that it was actually permitted and encouraged by this airline.

I thoroughly enjoyed the 'insider' knowledge of that flight and didn't mind one bit whether the pilots chose to use auto-pilot or not, but my question is - was this actually permitted? I have read, on this site, that the A320 has specific instructions in the manual that pilots must engage auto-pilot after 10,000 ft until approach.

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    $\begingroup$ I suppose you don't want to divulge the actual flight you were on to protect the pilot, but you can check on flightradar24 or flightaware yourself how much time was actually spent level at cruise altitude. For short European flights this can be a matter of minutes. Most of the flight is then climbing or descending which means that the rationale for using the autopilot (namely, tight tolerances on altitude for separation) doesn't hold. I don't know about the regs though. $\endgroup$ – Sanchises Sep 13 '18 at 10:50
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    $\begingroup$ note that "instructions in the manual" != "regulations" $\endgroup$ – Federico Sep 13 '18 at 10:57
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    $\begingroup$ There is no mandate in the generic A320 manual to fly on autopilot above 10000ft. Individual airlines‘ manuals may add this restriction though. $\endgroup$ – Cpt Reynolds Sep 13 '18 at 12:49
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    $\begingroup$ There could also be some exaggeration/variation in the phrase "most of the cruise". $\endgroup$ – FreeMan Sep 13 '18 at 15:03
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    $\begingroup$ Related: When might a pilot hand-fly a jet at cruise altitudes, and is it difficult? $\endgroup$ – ymb1 Sep 14 '18 at 11:06
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I think they were humouring you Cloud. Hand flying a jet at level cruise speed is not fun. It takes a lot of concentration and the novelty quickly wears off, and there is a high risk of getting busted for an altitude deviation due to a little bit of inattention. Even if you are able to find a sweet spot with the trim where it holds altitude perfectly with no stick pressure, making you think you can relax a bit, all it takes is a temperature change or running into a bit of mountain wave and airplane will climb or descend and if you are distracted.. and drift up or down a couple hundred feet... busted. RVSM legalities aside, I can't believe even a bushy tailed FO would hand fly more than a few minutes in cruise.

Plus with AP on, just one pilot has to be monitoring the AP, and the other one can do paperwork, sleep, do handstands, play video games or whatever. When hand flying, the pilot not flying has to be monitoring the pilot flying. For an entire hour plus? No way. Just too much work and risk to your livelihood.

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    $\begingroup$ I second this wholeheartedly. $\endgroup$ – Cpt Reynolds Sep 13 '18 at 21:30
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    $\begingroup$ Airplanes trim to a speed, not to a vertical level. The 320 is no different. This won't prevent an altitude deviation from something like wave or a temperature change that increases or decreases thrust. $\endgroup$ – John K Sep 14 '18 at 1:29
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    $\begingroup$ @Cloud are you saying that you filmed them? did you ask for their consent? $\endgroup$ – Federico Sep 14 '18 at 10:40
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    $\begingroup$ @Cloud That's even more evidence that what they did wasn't against any regulations. No person would willingly give away information that could end their career while knowingly being filmed... especially in just a short conversation with a passenger. $\endgroup$ – SnakeDoc Sep 14 '18 at 15:36
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    $\begingroup$ I respectfully disagree with your opinion that" Hand flying a jet at level cruise speed is not fun." I agree that "It takes a lot of concentration", but for me "novelty quickly wears off" was not at all true. These things are, of course, a matter of opinion, and I admit I was an outlier among the pilot population of the carriers I flew for. $\endgroup$ – Terry Feb 27 at 3:28
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Since the flight was in Europe and you are specifically referring to the cruise flight, it is very likely that the flight was operated in Reduced Vertical Separation Minima (RVSM) airspace. All airspace in Europe between FL290 and FL410 is RVSM airspace.

To be approved to fly in RVSM airspace there are several regulations. Some of them are regulations related to the aircraft equipment, others are related to maintenance or the way to aircraft is operated.

The equipment requirements state that in RVSM airspace, the aircraft's must have an automatic altitude control system; (see SPA.RVSM.110PDF). But this doesn't tell us that the automatic control system must be used; for that we need to look at the operator approval.

The operator approval is not a public document; it is tailored specifically to the situation of the operator. However, there are Acceptable Means of Compliance (AMC) defined for special approvals that give the guidance or boilerplate text for RVSM approvals.

The European Aviation Safety Authority has published these AMCPDF for all specific approvals. The RVSM section starts on page 24 of the document.

Under AMC2 SPA.RVSM.105 RVSM operational approval:

OPERATING PROCEDURES

...

d. In-flight procedures

  1. The following practices should be incorporated into flight crew training and procedures:

...

(iv) When changing levels, the aircraft should not be allowed to overshoot or undershoot the cleared flight level by more than 45 m (150 ft). If installed, the level off should be accomplished using the altitude capture feature of the automatic altitude-control system.

(v) An automatic altitude-control system should be operative and engaged during level cruise, except when circumstances such as the need to re-trim the aircraft or turbulence require disengagement. In any event, adherence to cruise altitude should be done by reference to one of the two primary altimeters. Following loss of the automatic height-keeping function, any consequential restrictions will need to be observed.

(vi) Ensure that the altitude-alerting system is operative.

Therefore you can conclude that if the cruise flight was fully hand flown, and within RVSM airspace (between FL290 and FL 410), it was in violation of the Operator RVSM Approval, and therefor in violation of the regulations.

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    $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$ – Federico Sep 14 '18 at 6:19
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    $\begingroup$ Thanks. „Should be operative and engaged“, is not strict, right? Should isn’t a shall or must. PS: Both answers are enlightening :) $\endgroup$ – Peter Feb 26 at 23:28
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    $\begingroup$ All that this answer boils down to is, if the crew's statement was correct about hand flying, then they were probably at or below FL 280. This answer really doesn't address the stated question; it just explains a particular parameter that would have to be met. $\endgroup$ – Ralph J Feb 26 at 23:44

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