September 12, 2018.   Pilot Snooze.

So maybe you saw the story: a passenger on board a United Airlines flight from Newark to Glasgow was alarmed to discover the plane’s captain taking a nap in one of the 757’s business class seats. He snapped a picture and, as these things go nowadays, touched off a scandal.

Or thought he did. The pilot, it turns out, hadn’t done anything wrong.

As described in chapter four of my book, all long-haul flights carry augmented cockpit crews that work in shifts. They aren’t napping because they’re lazy. They’re napping because, by regulation, they have to.

The specs on how this works vary a bit, country to country and airline to airline (a carrier’s in-house union rules are sometimes more restrictive than the government rules). At my airline, flights scheduled to be over eight hours long, but fewer than twelve, carry three pilots: one captain and two first officers. We rotate; all pilots are in the cockpit during takeoff and landing, but each spends roughly a third of the en route portion on break. On flights greater than twelve hours we bring four pilots: two captains and two first officers, and we work in pairs. Either way, there are always at least two pilots in the cockpit at any point.

Pilots on break retire either to a bunk room — squirreled away somewhere on, above, or below the main passenger deck — or to a designated first or business class seat, usually cordoned off with a curtain.

Flight attendants, too, take required breaks and have their own separate bunk rooms (or seats) for resting.


And if you’ll allow me to digress a minute…

If I’m not tired enough to sleep, I’ll often spend my break eating dinner and watching TV or a movie. I seldom watch television at home — I don’t even have cable — and it’s through my job, oddly enough, that I came to love and binge-watch some of my favorite series: “Boardwalk Empire,” “Breaking Bad,” “Flight of the Conchords,” “Mr. Robot,” and so on. I would never have discovered these shows if not for my long-haul rest breaks.

Indeed, it was on one of those breaks that I watched what, to this day, is the most brilliantly hilarious thing I’ve ever seen on TV. I’m talking about the four-minute, Russian Tea Room scene starring Louis C.K. and F. Murray Abraham in the “Dad” episode of the show “Louie.” You can view it here.

That sequence is so consistently and intricately funny that it’s hard to pinpoint the best part. I’m especially fond of the moment when Louie, flustered and helpless, says, “That’s… that’s a question?”


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