A pilot gives us a glimpse into the private quarters of a major airline

A good friend of mine asked me, “How do you have the energy to make layovers every time you take an international trip?” I explained that we were sleeping on the plane. This statement was followed with wide eyes and raised eyebrows. “Are you sleeping on the plane? I’m sure she was shocked and worried that the pilots were sleeping in the cockpit.

I explained that most long-haul aircraft are equipped with rooms for crews to rest and nap, sometimes referred to as “condos in the sky.” Others call it “the bunk room” or “the rest room”, but the official term is “crew rest area”. Allow me to pull back the curtain and give you a glimpse of these little-known hidden spots on large, long-haul commercial jets.

Pilot sleeper area on a Boeing 777-300

Photo credit: Christy Karsten

Where are the pilots’ private quarters?

The airline I work for has two long-haul aircraft, the Boeing 777 and the Boeing 787. We call the B777-300 the “Queen of the Fleet”. She is the largest, most comfortable and has the best crew rest compartments of any aircraft.

There are many regulations and crew numbers required for long-haul flights. The scheduled flight time dictates the number of pilots and flight attendants required on a specific flight. Typically, a long-haul flight scheduled in less than 12 hours will require three pilots and at least nine to 11 flight attendants. A flight of more than 12 hours requires four pilots.

The captain usually chooses the break positions for the pilots. There are still two pilots at the flight controls. The pilots rest and take breaks, then relieve the pilots flying equally until the end of the flight. The pursuer, who is the primary flight attendant, coordinates flight attendant breaks based on when aircraft services are being performed, crew members’ seniority, and work position.

Stairs to crew rest area

Stairs to crew rest area

Photo credit: Christy Karsten

What is a bunk room?

Flight crew members each have their own designated rest areas. Our B777-300 has two very large flight crew rest areas. The pilot’s rest area is above first class and the flight attendants’ rest area is near the aft galley. Let me start with the flight crew rest area. Behind an inconspicuous door are steep stairs leading to a secret and quiet place to rest. Once on the stair landing, a wardrobe opens with mirrors, hangers and ample storage space for extra linen. The landing is designed so that a tall person can stand up and not touch the ceiling.

Keep going up the stairs and you’ll see two large leather recliners with more than enough leg room to stretch even the longest legs. A large video monitor is available to watch one of 300 movies, games or documentaries. There is lighting, air conditioning, music and sheets available.

Freight elevator on a Boeing jet

Goods lift

Photo credit: Christy Karsten

If you choose to dine in the bunk bed area, we can use a goods lift to bring food, making it easier to navigate steep stairs. If you want to take a nap or just lay down, there are two private bed areas with curtains to create even more privacy. The beds are approximately 6.5 feet long, approximately 40 inches wide, and approximately 36 inches high. We have a crew member who is designated to “sleeve” before each flight. I have to say we are spoiled with great linens. We have duvets that are wrapped on one side with a white cotton sheet and gray quilted bedding material.

When the time comes for a break, we are greeted with a made bed! Sheets and a duvet are laid on the mattress with two clean white pillows. If you want to listen to music, there’s a monitor to hook up. You can dim the multiple lights in the bunk to read, relax or stream movies using Wi-Fi on the jet to watch on your own tablet. When two pilots share the berth, one generally gives the other a few minutes of privacy to change. On a flight of less than 12 hours, the pilot on break has the entire sleeping area to himself.

There are regulations on how crew rest areas must be constructed, and each airline can define the configurations when purchasing the aircraft. Current regulations state that areas must be free of intrusive noise, odors and vibrations that have an effect on sleep. Prior to the creation of specific crew rest areas, a first class seat was designated for a crew member and a heavy curtain was placed around the seat. Unfortunately, these seats were neither silent nor private. The seats were located near a galley, and during a service, noise easily spread through the curtains, and some passengers poked their heads around the curtains.

Air hostess area

Air hostess area

Photo credit: Christy Karsten

Where do flight attendants sleep?

The flight attendant sleeper area on the B777-300 is quite impressive. It contains eight beds, four on each side, and is above the rear kitchen. It reminds me of a long bowling alley. The overlapping areas each have large thick curtains for privacy and to reduce noise. Each berth has its own environmental controls and lighting. These beds are also equipped with duvets and pillows. All beds are fitted with seat belts for extra safety in turbulence. Each sleeper area has telephones to communicate with the entire aircraft at all times.

Who can take a break first?

So how do we determine when and who can take a break, and for how long? For pilots, we determine how long our actual flight time is minus take-off and climb procedures. We do not count taxiing time between takeoff and landing. We also take into account the time that the last pilot on break is back in the cockpit, well before starting a descent.

If it’s a crew of three people, we divide the whole flight by three. The first pilot, called “first break”, leaves the cockpit and has a predetermined time to return. A nifty feature of our flight computer is a “recall” function. We insert the wake-up time minus about 10 minutes and preset all breaks. When the timer alerts us, we call the berth area and give the pilot his 10-minute wake-up courtesy call. It seems to work pretty well!

Some pilots ask for 15 minutes before the end of their break, because they might want to freshen up in the toilets or take more time to get dressed. Most pilots take off their uniform shirt and sleep in something more comfortable. During the cold winter months, I jump into a cashmere tracksuit and really get cozy! Ultimately, all pilots must return, be in uniform, and be in their flight position well before descent to the destination airport. The purser creates the stewards’ breaks with the same logic as the pilots.

The big difference for them is the number of services offered to our passengers on a flight. The purser must take into account beverage service, meals, more beverage service and a meal before landing. The coordination may be different for the three classes – first, business, additional main cabin and coach. Each cabin class has a unique service.

Berths in the pilots' quarters

Berths in the pilots’ quarters

Photo credit: Christy Karsten

How to Get the Best Sleep in the Bunk

Learning how to manage sleep, breaks and food on a long-haul flight is an art. Most seasoned flight crew members have found what works best for them to get the most sleep opportunities. I love watching movies, but I force myself to lie down and take a nap even if it’s not a deep sleep. I jump on my Bose noise canceling headphones and sometimes I forget that I’m on a jet going over 500 miles an hour and I wake up well rested. These secret rooms create a safe environment for your flight crews to rest so they can be alert and focused when they arrive in a faraway land far from where they took off!

Now you know!

The next time you board a long-haul flight, see if you can find the secret doors. Although you cannot visit the rooms, know that they are there. Today’s long-haul aircraft are designed to travel farther and longer than ever before.

Regulations on crew rest, duty days, flight times and extremely long flights have created a safe, private and secure area for flight crews to rest to ensure you arrive at your destination safely. I have to admit, first class sleepers are a fabulous way to relax after a 12 hour flight, but being able to sleep and rest easy in our “condo in the sky” is the best!