What to do with Crews?

Q: I just flew from Tashkent to Saigon on a once-a-week service by Uzbekistan Airways. It’s is a six-hour flight that takes off again for Tashkent an hour after it lands. Clearly one crew can’t do both legs? Neither does it sound logical that a crew would sit in Saigon for an entire week, waiting to fly home. How does this work?

Crewmember flight and duty time limitations vary from country to country, governing agency to governing agency — America’s FAA, Europe’s JAA, etc. Since all nations have a vested interest in their pilots staying awake and their planes not crashing, all are roughly on par. Not privy to the rules of Uzbek civil aviation — or how to find them — I can’t speak for the exact procedures of that carrier, but the example is a good one and allows some insight into the weirdness and complexity of aircrew rotations:

Total round-trip duration between Tashkent and Saigon — or Ho Chi Minh City if you insist — is about 12 hours. Assuming a little more for pre-and-postflight obligations, that’s about 15 hours total. There are plenty of crews that endure 15 consecutive hours onboard a plane. Flights from the US to Singapore now exceed 17 hours, for example. The caveat being that long-haul crews are split between primary and secondary shifts, with relief pilots taking over at designated junctures. So it’s at least conceivable that “one” crew indeed operates both legs, provided a relief shift is included for a portion — even half — of the ride.

More likely, however, the crew does sit around in Saigon for a week. Such arrangements are not unprecedented, and having experienced multi-day layovers in Belgium, Mexico, and elsewhere, I can speak to their status as a top choice among the ranks. I can envision the Uzbeks lazily savoring a few cold Tigers out on the veranda of the local Sofitel, not minding it one bit. Alternately, they may be positioned into Saigon via some other airline a day two ahead of time. They’ll lay over for a night, then work the trip home to Tashkent.

Glamorous, maybe, but this is the high-end of airline flying. How does Newark-Houston-Omaha sound? Or Pittsburgh-Columbus-Philadelphia-Manchester-Pittsburgh-Buffalo, followed by an 11 hours of rest and a 6 a.m. wake-up at the La Quinta (and a twice-monthly paycheck for $784)?

For airline crews in America, there’s no quick answer to how many hours a pilot can remain aloft or on duty. Domestic or international; supplemental or flag? A rule of thumb for domestic operations: eight hours of actual stick time and up to 16 hours of duty time, subject to numerous asterisks. The stipulations laid forth by the FAA are about as easily decipherable as the Rosetta Stone, and a pilot’s manuals contain more charts and graphs covering flight and duty regs than those used for instrument approaches and high-altitude navigation. Making things more complicated, bargaining agreements and in-house work rules usually add language above and beyond the government’s basic strictures.

If you’re really curious, and you’re the type who enjoys excruciating tedium, have at it with the Federal Aviation Regulations, Part 121, Subparts Q, R, and S, an unnavigable warren of paragraphs, subparagraphs, and references to obscure Federal dockets, detailing for how long, and under what incomprehensible sets of conditions, a pilot may stay on the clock.


This article is part of a collection that originally appeared on Salon.com. Patrick Smith, 38, is an erstwhile airline pilot, retired punk rocker and air travel columnist. His book, Ask the Pilot (Riverhead) was voted “Best Travel Book of 2004” by Amazon.com. Patrick has traveled to more than 55 countries and always asks for a window seat. He lives near Boston.