An empty leg is a private jet flight where there are no passengers on-board. It's a one way return trip home for private jet charter or other luxury jets, similar to how rental cars must be driven back to their base if the drop off is in a different city. Or it can be a pilot who is going some place for personal reasons. Or a pilot who needs miles or air time.

I am not travelling as crew, but rather as a passenger. My longest empty leg flight this year was several weeks ago to Stavropol which lasted just under 8 hours. I have been thinking about getting one from Washington DC to London in August. Although the duration is about an hour less, and I'm not too concerned about the flight over, I wanted to ask…

Does the directionality, west to east in this case, have an increased effect on crew fatigue? And if so, is there anything I can do as a passenger to help the crew alleviate fatigue? Normally on empty leg, you can speak with, or even visit the pilot (things you cannot do on a regulated flight) but is there anything other than initiating conversation every so often that might be more effective?

Note: I only take the opportunities that are free or near-free, so a full-crew with redundant personnel is rare. Also FAA regs are usually not applicable.

One example is that pilots flying commercially have strict limits on the time that they are allowed to fly or be on duty. Pilots of private aircraft don't have any limit, other than not to fly if it would be unsafe.

Source: Are regulations covering private jets different from those covering commercial jets?

The consensus view on aviation.stackexchange.com appears to wholly contradict TSE's conclusion in the comments given below.

  • 4
    Not very familiar with empty-leg flights, how is crew fatigue there different than on a regular flight ?
    – blackbird
    Commented Jun 16, 2015 at 14:48
  • 6
    What is an empty leg flight?
    – nsn
    Commented Jun 16, 2015 at 15:06
  • 1
    aviation.stackexchange.com is another place you could ask... Commented Jun 16, 2015 at 16:08
  • 7
    +1, butt his question should be in aviation.SE, really. It involves a lot of different rules. The policies are prepared so it can cover this part without any passenger. Having single, augmented or double crew is all about flight time limitations and duty time limitations and/or distance (in degrees). All of this stuff is technical and does not depend on the availability of passengers. So, I am voting to move to this question to aviation.se where many pilots can answer it. Commented Jun 16, 2015 at 18:16
  • 4
    Hang on. You're a passenger on a flight without passengers? How does that work?
    – TRiG
    Commented Jun 24, 2015 at 12:13

1 Answer 1


Basic action

Like with all cases where you need to keep someone sharp, it mostly depend on the person. There will not be an 'one fits all' solution.

My approach with coach and car drivers is always based on their reactions and I guess that pilots be be no different, some indicate they want you to chat constantly, others that you just talk every now and again and others are so non-responsive that you feel you are not welcome.

First thing you need to work out is whether you have language in common, and whether you can amuse or entertain the person to be kept sharp with your natural patter or favorite subjects. It is much harder when your chat is annoying to the person, as he or she would rather have you go away.

Of course, knowledge of the work is useful. Just like you should not distract a driver on a busy crossing, there will be times in a cockpit where the pilot has to be there for the work.

For many people 'work' is hobby, so a natural subject to talk about with a pilot is planes. Those they can fly, those they might want to fly and maybe also those that are out of reach but very interesting.
If you have a good memory for facts, reading and remembering stats about the newest but also the oldest planes will likely be useful. But even if you just get the pilot to talk you may be on the right track. Ask about favorite plane, and settle in to be bored to death by details on performance.

Other likely subjects are cars, racing, sports (base it on the country and the international competitions going on, football (soccer, rugby, American, Aussie Rules...) Tour de France bike ride in July and on. Do not rule out any subject, from fly fishing to birds, from latest holiday to houses that he might have seen, the list is endless. And if you are passionate about anything, mention it. I am always surprised how many want to know more about my hobby, and how much they do know even when they claim they do not know a thing.

But do not talk all flight/night long. Let silences occur, but watch for slacking in attention. A short sound, like a cough, might be all that is needed. Silence and someone who is near might even be all that is needed for some people, as long as you are the one that is awake and not likely to fall asleep when you are needed.

I do not know the rules in non-commercial flight. But in a coach my mother has kept the driver from falling asleep with the offer of a sweet, just a few words and a bit of sugar was all that was needed, she is sure.

Direction of travel

People often claim that one direction of travel affects humans more than the other. But my personal experience is that it depends much more on how rested you were when you started your travel.
Likely also your personal way of reacting, so some people may be more affected by one direction, other by the other, real or just because that is what they expect.

If you can talk with the pilot about his expectations and experiences, so you are aware of what the problem spots might be. And you should be aware of your own weak spots. If you tend to fall asleep after two hours flight, you will need to keep yourself awake through that spot if you want to be of use to keep the pilot sharp.

Difficult periods are, generally, after meals. And when it is time to go to bed in the time zone you just left and in the time zone that is home to the crew.

Disclaimer. I have never spoken with pilots who fly long flights regularly.

  • So this is basically how to engage in small-talk with someone working ? How do commercial pilots avoid crew fatigue ?
    – blackbird
    Commented Jun 28, 2015 at 13:40
  • 1
    @Blackbird57, commercial pilots are regulated and need to do Fatigue Management to comply with regulations. Private pilots are covered in different regulations. The comments on the question are wrong.
    – Gayot Fow
    Commented Jun 29, 2015 at 12:07

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