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A 737-800 was scheduled to leave from a Canadian airport to Mexico, but was delayed: the airline said the reason was that one of the pilots called in sick. As a workaround, the airline flew the plane to a nearby Canadian airport (1:44 flight time) to pick up a new pilot, then flew directly to the Mexican destination.

My question: do regulations permit flying a 737-800 with passengers for that distance (1:44) with only one pilot under these circumstances?

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    $\begingroup$ It’s more likely that they had another pilot which couldn’t do the whole flight but was still able to do the shorter flight. Definitely wouldn’t have taken off with a single pilot. $\endgroup$
    – jcaron
    Mar 19, 2023 at 21:13
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    $\begingroup$ 1:44 = 1h and 44min? $\endgroup$ Mar 20, 2023 at 11:55
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    $\begingroup$ @jcaron It is even possible that the airline gave vague information because what they were actually doing was to rearrange the pilots available among different flights. $\endgroup$
    – FluidCode
    Mar 20, 2023 at 13:49
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    $\begingroup$ @user2705196 Yes, that's a normal way to write 1 hour and 44 minutes in North America. (It's also a normal way to write 1 minute and 44 seconds, but I think it's safe to assume that the flight wasn't quite that short. :) Context generally makes it apparent which meaning was intended or else a different format is employed.) $\endgroup$
    – reirab
    Mar 21, 2023 at 6:35

4 Answers 4

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Your Question: do regulations permit flying a 737-800 with passengers for that distance (1:44) with only one pilot under these circumstances?

Answer: I'm unable to locate, nor would I expect to find, any exceptions or exemptions under Canadian or U.S. regulations that would allow operating a B737-800 (whether carrying passengers or not) with a single pilot. According to the requirements specified in the FAA Type Certificate Data Sheet (pertinent excerpts shown below) the B737-800 requires a minimum flightcrew of 2 - a Pilot and Copilot.

The reason the airline flew the airplane to a nearby Canadian airport before departing to its destination in Mexico may not have been clearly explained to the passengers. Nevertheless, it is beyond improbable that the B737-800 would have been flown by a single pilot.



The FAA Type Certificate Data Sheet (A16WE), which includes the B-737-800, shows the following excerpts:

RE: page 1:

enter image description here

RE: page 33:

enter image description here

(highlights/underlines in both images are mine)

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    $\begingroup$ I was under the impression that you can get a single pilot exemption added onto a type rating if you can demonstrate the performance of all PIC and SIC duties on a practical test. But I cannot locate the regulation for this. $\endgroup$ Mar 20, 2023 at 13:16
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    $\begingroup$ @CarloFelicione An airplane type can receive single-pilot approval, which would appear on its TCDS. I would be very surprised if there were any method to get a type rating that lets one ignore explicit restrictions on the TCDS. $\endgroup$
    – Chris
    Mar 20, 2023 at 16:29
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    $\begingroup$ There could have been a co-pilot on call with enough time for a short hop, but not a flight to Mexico. $\endgroup$
    – fectin
    Mar 20, 2023 at 18:43
  • $\begingroup$ And doing a little bit of research, I realized what I was thinking of. It is the removal of a ”SIC required” limitation on a type rating for an unrestricted type rating for a a/c which is single pilot certificated. $\endgroup$ Mar 21, 2023 at 3:36
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Unless there is an exemption I am unaware of, the 737-800 always requires a pilot and co-pilot.

Perhaps you misunderstood? Longer haul operations require three (or more) pilots, so maybe the shorter flight had two pilots and they were going to pick up a third?

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    $\begingroup$ This seems like a good guess, but I'm struggling to imagine which route from Canada to Mexico would require an augmented crew. Flights from Vancouver or Edmonton to Cancun max out at around 6 hours. I suppose its possible there was a situation where a crew only had a couple hours left in their duty day, so they were assigned to fly the aircraft to another airport where a fresh crew could continue the flight. $\endgroup$ Mar 19, 2023 at 20:54
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    $\begingroup$ @Zach It's also possible that a pilot was available for a 4 hour period or so needed to accompany the otherwise single pilot to the close-by destination and take the next flight back; but s/he was not available for the long haul, due to rest requirements or a subsequent short haul. $\endgroup$ Mar 20, 2023 at 12:34
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    $\begingroup$ @Peter-ReinstateMonica this explanation seems most likely - scheduling meant they had another pilot who could fly, but only to the nearby airport. They land, swap pilots, and take off again. $\endgroup$
    – lupe
    Mar 20, 2023 at 12:43
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    $\begingroup$ Flight time between the original Canadian city and the Mexico destination is 5-6 hours $\endgroup$
    – Glenn Lane
    Mar 20, 2023 at 22:31
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    $\begingroup$ @GlennLane Probably not this, then, unless Air Canada has some specific policy requiring an augmented crew sometimes when it's not required by law. The exact reason can only be speculation, but I stand by the main idea that it is very, very, very unlikely they dispatched a 737 with only 1 pilot, and there could be any number of reasons they needed to swap out pilots after a brief detour. $\endgroup$
    – Chris
    Mar 21, 2023 at 1:28
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In addition to the possibility of one of the pilots on hand at the airport having flown enough in the past day that they could legally fly a 2 hour flight but not a longer flight, there may be other issues. While I would expect most pilots in Canada (and indeed around the world) to have passports and other documentation as needed to fly anywhere that their airline flies, it is certainly possible that a qualified pilot did not have their passport available for some reason (lost, stolen, forgotten, expired) and was therefore limited to domestic flights. They could fly between Canadian airports but not out of the country.

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Another possibility is that their available 2nd pilot was over 65, and therefore ineligible to fly over US airspace. Canada doesn't have mandatory retirement for pilots, but US does. Especially during a pilot shortage, Canadian airlines will accommodate them on flights within Canadian airspace only, sometimes even taking irregular/inefficient routes instead of cancelling.

https://torontosun.com/news/national/arbitrator-air-canada-pilots-cant-fly-past-the-age-of-65

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    $\begingroup$ Your linked article directly contradicts your answer. Your article says Air Canada has a 65 year old limit, and such a limit was upheld legally. Is there something else you wanted to post? $\endgroup$
    – user71659
    Mar 21, 2023 at 3:59
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    $\begingroup$ @user71659 It says that Air Canada has a 65-year-old limit because of the need to fly frequently into the U.S., but that Canada itself (i.e. Transport Canada) does not have such a rule. While Air Canada is the largest airline in Canada, there are several others that also operate flights to the U.S. and Mexico (e.g. WestJet, Flair, Swoop, etc.) $\endgroup$
    – reirab
    Mar 21, 2023 at 6:30
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    $\begingroup$ @reirab Correct. Would add that Air Canada’s own rules in 2020&2021 (when they wanted every excuse available to fire people due to low demand) may have changed in 2022 when they can’t find enough pilots (due to forced and unforced retirements and high global demand for pilots, especially when Air Canada pays less than many major foreign carriers). $\endgroup$
    – Danielson
    Mar 23, 2023 at 18:28

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