A listener on this week’s Airlines Confidential podcast relayed a story about the pilot taking his lavatory break. Access to the cockpit is blocked while this is happening so prevent passengers from getting in. And a flight attendant goes into the cockpit so that the other pilot isn’t alone (a procedure adopted after the Germanwings crash where a pilot committed suicide, locking the other pilot out of the cockpit).
The pilot didn’t go right back into the cockpit. He spent time chatting with a flight attendant. And the listener wanted to know whether there’s a time limit for how long a pilot can be out of the cockpit during a flight.
Former Spirit Airlines CEO Ben Baldanza relayed that he spoke with attorney Peter Petesch about the relevant Federal Aviation Regulations. FAR 121.543 requires pilots to be in the cockpit at all times except:
- “Necessary for performance of duties” to check something in the aircaft
- “In connection with physiological needs” using the lav
- Crew rest, when another pilot takes their place
There’s no time limit on these exceptions. So in Baldanza’s words “the only thing I could imagine this pilot would do is say his chatting with the flight attendant was meeting another physiological need.”
Several years ago on an American Airlines flight from Washington National to Dallas-Fort Worth my flight’s captain spent 20 minutes in the galley flirting as part of his lavatory trip.
This came right after the meal service, and passengers up front were visibly squirming in their seats, while a service cart in the aisle in coach meant it wasn’t possible for passengers to go to the lavatories in back either.
My view is that a few pleasantries as part of a bathroom trip is fine, but that a pilot shouldn’t be out of the cockpit for 20 minutes on non-bathroom business while they’re on duty.