How long can cabin crew work in one day? A look at the legal rules and duty timeouts

How long can cabin crew work? Duty timeouts explained.

How many hours a day does a flight attendant work? Plenty of people ask this question, partly because it affects passengers too! On many longer flights, frequent fliers will have almost certainly heard those dreaded words from the Captain’s PA:

I’m sorry, but due to the delay, the crew are now out of hours. We can’t legally continue to operate the service, so it will be cancelled tonight and rescheduled”

What does “out of hours” actually mean? How long can cabin crew work? With record disruption at airports across the world forecast to continue, it’s on everyone’s mind as we all gear up for summer holidays. Let’s take a look at the maximum working day length for cabin crew and see what the regulations say about how much time we can spend in the air!

Disclaimer: This guide looks at flight attendant maximums from a European Aviation perspective. While the numbers are accurate for a general overview, individual carriers may differ. Current cabin crew, always follow your company-specific manuals.

Cabin crew hours: Legal maximum’s

Shorthaul

The legal maximum most cabin crew can work in one day — without resting — is 13 hours. With a tool known as Captain’s discretion (permitting the crew to work longer if needed during unforeseen circumstances like disruption) this can be extended by up to 2 hours.

That means that cabin crew can end up working a 15-hour day

Flight attendant lying down in an overhead locker

These cabin crew maximum hours are calculated on a day-by-day basis from the European Aviation Authority maximum duty table. Maximum working day length for cabin crew depends on the time of day that the day starts and the number of flights cabin crew perform in one day:

  • Days that work during the night (17:00–04:59) have the shortest time allowed, while days that are largely during waking hours will have longer limitations
  • Performing multiple flights per day (known as sectors) is more tiring, so the longest duty days are only allowed for 1-2 sector days
  • The maximum duty limit without rest is 13 hours, and the most restrictive limit is 9 hours
  • All limits can have an additional 2 hours added to cover unforeseen disruption if the Captain deems the crew are fit enough to continue the day safely.

Longhaul

Crew rest during longhaul flights is where things get… complicated!

However, the longest day cabin crew can work with an inflight break is 18 hours. 

Adding in Captain’s discretion (a 2-hour extension permitted in certain circumstances) that takes us up to a 20-hour day at work!

The reason longhaul flight attendants can work longer days than shorthaul crew, relates to the provision of rest facilities.

An inside look at class 1 cabin crew rest facilities

Facilities onboard aircraft are broken up into 3 categories:

  • Class 1 rest facility. Essentially mini beds, and referred to as crew bunks, class one rest facilities must be separated from the passengers compartment and the cockpit. They must be quieter and have controllable light — AKA darkness!
  • Class 2 rest facility. Defined as seats that recline more than 45 degrees (with additional requirements on width and leg support), class 2 rest is essentially a comfy seat located out of the way somewhere in the cabin. It must be separated from the passengers by at least a curtain, and crucially be reasonably free from disturbance — aka not by a galley or toilet. This is aimed at minimising light and sound.
  • Class 3 rest facility. Defined as seats that reclines 40 degrees or more, class 3 rest is the lowest quality of rest facility, and can be a jumpseat in the cabin or in the cockpit. It does have to be separated by a curtain, but there is no requirement that it is quiet or undisturbed.
Flight attendant rest facility entrance

Rest is achieved by dividing the flight time up, and rotating the time cabin crew spend in the bunks.

There are a myriad of complicated adjustments, but essentially, the longer the rest and the better the class of rest facility, the longer duty days cabin crew can work.

The maximum crew duty ranges between the shorthaul limit of 13 hours, all the way up to an 18-hour day if at least 3 hours and 25 minutes inflight rest is available in class 1 facilities.

What happens if the crew timeout of hours? — 3 options

Known as a crew timeout or, going out of hours, due to disruption and delay, occasionally cabin crew and flight crew will be beyond the legal hours required to operate the flight.

Many flyers will have heard the PA announcing this before.

So, what happens next? Typically, there are 3 options:

Departures screen showing delayed and cancelled flights

The flight is rescheduled with the original crew.

  • This will normally mean passengers and crew will disembark and be put up into a hotel until the rescheduled flight time.
  • This will be a minimum of around 10-12 hours depending on the time taken to disembark and reach the hotel, to ensure the crew have sufficient legal rest before the next flight
  • However, if the crew have had a particularly long day up to this point, their rest must equal their previous duty hours, which may prolong the rescheduled delay.

The duty hours can be extended with the original crew

  1. Using Captains discretion. This tool gives the crew an additional 2-hour window to extend the legal maximum day. However, there are certain requirements that mean it isn’t always applicable. Captain’s discretion can’t normally be used to extend a flight away from home base, the crew must be deemed physically fit to operate, and any minutes of discretion used must be logged and sent to the regulatory authority.
  2. Switching the aircraft. We have seen how the class of rest facilities affects the legal maximum duty day for flight and cabin crew. Occasionally, it is possible to swap from an aircraft with lower quality rest facilities to one with Class 1 rest, permitting a longer crew working day. However, this option is rarely used after boarding because the time required to change the type of aircraft is usually equal to the additional hours gained by the better rest facility.
  3. Additional crew. Adding supplementary standby crew to the original crew complement can also extend the hours, preventing a crew timeout. As the amount of rest attained affects the length of duty, by providing the flight with more flight attendants or pilots, rest periods can be extended.

Using a replacement crew

  • Normally, only an option at home base, many airlines will have standby crews waiting to keep the operation going due to delays or disruption.
  • While cabin crew and pilots have maximum legal duties, there aren’t any maximum limits placed on the passengers!
  • As a result, if the passengers are happy to continue on their journey a replacement crew can be brought off standby to relieve the out of hours crew, and operate the flight despite the delay.

Summary

When crew timeout of hours, it can be a frustrating experience as a passenger. Will the flight get rescheduled for the next day, extended with a new crew, or cancelled entirely?

However, the rationale behind the decision is safety. Cabin crew are primarily there for your safety, and if an inflight emergency happens at any stage in the day, we need to be alert and rested. For this reason, legal maximum duty periods are strictly monitored.

And, despite often being seen as restrictive, cabin crew can work some pretty long days:

  • Without rest, short haul crew can work up to 13-hour days
  • With class 1 rest, long haul cabin crew can work up to 18-hour days
  • All days can be extended by an additional 2 hours using Captain’s Discretion

Hopefully, this article has helped demystify how long cabin crew can work in a day. As we can see, there are multiple variables behind the legal limits, from the time of day that the work started to the type of rest facilities available onboard.

If you’re curious about other aspects of life as a flight attendant, be sure to check out our flight attendant category, for more behind-the-scenes looks at what it’s like to work in the airline industry!

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Alissa
Alissa

Flyingbynumber’s Resident Senior Flight Attendant — Alissa

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