Plane Answers: Who sets crew rest rules and are MD-80s safe?

Welcome to Gadling’s feature, Plane Answers, where our resident airline pilot, Kent Wien, answers your questions about everything from takeoff to touchdown and beyond. Have a question of your own? Ask away!

John asks:

Are commercial airline pilots allowed to be flying for up to a maximum number of hours by FAA, or is this at the discretion of the airline they are flying for?

The FAA allows a two-pilot aircraft to be scheduled to fly for up to 8 hours. This is flight time only and doesn’t include any time waiting between flights or getting ready. The duty-day, or the time a pilot can be on duty is sixteen hours, but some airlines have rules, often negotiated by their unions for thirteen or fourteen hour days.

When an extra ‘relief’ pilot is added for a total of three pilots, the flight time can increase to a scheduled 12 hours with a total duty time of 18 hours.

Finally, if four pilots are aboard, the scheduled flight time can be up to 16 hours and the duty time up to 20 hours.

There are other rules designed to keep fatigue out of the cockpit; no more than six days on duty without a full day off, no more than 30 hours of flight time in a week (32 hours for international flights) and no more than 100 hours of flying a month (120 hours for international pilots).

One exception: The FAA has established different flight and duty time regulations for the state of Alaska.

Many of these regulations are likely to change in the next year. The FAA has announced plans to review these regulations and to update them as a result of new alertness studies and last year’s incident in Hawaii where both pilots fell asleep after flying a rather brutal schedule.

Joe asks:

Hi Kent,

I love your site and visit often. I have a question about the MD-80 series airplane. When I was a child, my Mom missed Northwest flight 255.

Her Physician was not so lucky. Ever since that incident, I have been terrified to fly on the MD-80 and have not flown on one! I realize they are very popular and have a fairly good safety record, but I prefer the Airbus 320/321, 737, 757 and the ultimate – 767 for my travels. How do you feel about the MD-80s? Are they a more difficult airplane to fly? I ask because I will be flying on an AA MD-80 in September and I’m very nervous about it. Keep up the Plane Answers! I love them!

PS – Took your advice after watching the DA20 video – After 31 years on this earth and 11 years of police work, I finally have saved the $ to chase that pilot’s license!
Wow, congratulations Joe. One of my primary flight instructors was a police officer, in fact. I’m sure you’re going to love flight training.

I flew the MD-80 for only a year, but I remember it to be a safe airplane that does well in a crosswind, has a reasonable approach speed and isn’t lacking in performance. The technology in other airplanes has improved and the MD-80 has been retrofitted with some of those same features such as GPS and an EFIS (electronic flight instrument system) display.

There isn’t a quieter airplane for those sitting in the front of an MD-80. In the descent, at less than 250 knots, it’s as if you’re flying a glider. It’s not very difficult to fly and it doesn’t rely on any fly-by-wire system for the flight controls.

The NW255 accident was caused by a failure of the pilots to conduct a before takeoff checklist that, among other things, assured the flaps and slats were extended. Contributing to the accident was a failed takeoff warning horn that had a tripped circuit breaker preventing it from working.

Today, we have a checklist (at American it’s a mechanical checklist that’s hard to miss, the importance of which is drilled into every aviator’s head from the beginning of their career. I realize how close to home, so to speak, this occurred for you, but I think you can feel safe on an MD-80. I’m even considering upgrading to it when I have the seniority for captain.

Do you have a question about something related to the pointy end of an airplane? Ask Kent and maybe he’ll use it for the next Plane Answers. Check out his other blog, Cockpit Chronicles and travel along with him at work.