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There are 24 timezones across the globe and a plane can jump through multiple during one flight. So which timezone should you use when flying?

According to the Federal Aviation Regulations (FAR), you must use Coordinated Universal Time (UTC) while flying. Technically a time standard rather than a timezone, this 24-hour timing scheme never changes and ensures all pilots and Air Traffic Control (ATC) stay on the same page.

Keeping track of timezones while flying can be nearly impossible, for both passengers and pilots. That’s why UTC was created and is used by all pilots and ATC. In this article, you’ll learn what UTC is and why it’s used, whether or not you have to use it while flying your own personal aircraft, which timezones airlines use, and also how to keep track of timezones as you’re flying.

We pride ourselves at SkyTough on providing our readers with the best information possible. When it comes to the timezone used while flying, this is spelled out in the FAR, so it’s a tough one to mess up! But the FAR doesn’t apply to all flights, so we used our own pilot experience and interviews with others in the industry to come up with the most comprehensive information you’ll find on this topic.

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What Timezone Do You Use When Flying A Plane?

Whether you’re flying by yourself in your own small aircraft or you’re thinking about a  commercial pilot flying a passenger jet, there has to be some sort of agreed-upon time, right? If not, how would pilots effectively communicate with Air Traffic Control (ATC)? How would flights around the world stay organized and not interrupt one another at takeoff and landing?

If those are the types of thoughts that you’re having, then you are thinking about it the right way! There is, in fact, an agreed-upon time standard when it comes to flying. And it’s known as Coordinated Universal Time (UTC). This enables pilots and airlines from around the world to communicate effectively without having to do mental gymnastics just to figure out what time is being talked about.

So what exactly is Coordinated Universal Time and how does it compare with other timezones?

Is UTC The Same Thing As GMT?

Let’s start by taking a brief look at Greenwich Mean Time (GMT), which is arguably the most well-known timezone in the world. GMT is the average (or mean) of the daily time when the Sun passes over the Prime Meridian at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, London. This timezone (GMT) is the basis of other time zones around the world.

For example, Eastern Standard Time (EST) — a popular time zone in the United States — is often denoted as GMT -5 (or GMT -4 during Daylight Savings Time). This means that EST is typically 5 hours behind GMT, i.e. at midnight GMT, it’s only 7:00 PM EST. This just goes to show that GMT is the worldwide basis for comparison, and is the most widely accepted timezone in the world.

The thing about UTC, however, is that it’s not really a timezone per se. Instead, UTC is a time standard that airlines and pilots follow to stay coordinated with one another. But for the sake of comparison, UTC and GMT are always at the same time. This means that UTC could be denoted as GMT -0. The only difference between the two is that GMT uses the 12-hour time notation, whereas UTC uses 24-hour notation. Neither UTC nor GMT change their time to account for Daylight savings throughout the year, so they are always at the same time.

But in the case of flying a plane, it’s important to note that you’ll be using UTC as the time standard, not GMT/

Do You Have To Use UTC When Flying By Yourself?

Any sort of controlled flight, whether that’s by yourself or flying a commercial passenger jet, requires the use of UTC. This means that even if you’re flying your own private plane by yourself, you need to communicate with ATC using Coordinated Universal Time if it’s a controlled flight. You also need to record data using UTC so that it remains standardized with all other flights.

Now in your own cockpit and to yourself, you can use whatever time you want. Simply take a look at your watch and you’re good to go. But all communication and data recording will need to be performed using UTC.

One of the keynotes to note in the paragraphs above is controlled flights. This means that any uncontrolled flight does not need to operate using UTC and the pilot can operate in whatever timezone they deem fit. Without getting too deep into the details of what controlled flights and uncontrolled flights are, the big difference is basically that uncontrolled flights are those that are operated in uncontrolled airspace. This just means airspace that is not overseen by Air Traffic Control.

On a similar note, military flights are also not required to operate using UTC. The military uses their own time standard and operates on their own schedule, not needing to report to ATC using the time standard of other pilots and flights.

Do Airlines Use Local Times For Departures And Arrivals?

Although pilot/ATC communication and data recording must be done using UTC, pretty much all customer-facing times will always be in local times. This even includes the change in time based on different time zones experienced on the same flight. So if you look at your ticket as a passenger, the departure time of your flight will be in the local time at the airport you’re flying out of. But the arrival time on the same ticket will be in the local time of the airport you’re flying into.

This could mean that in some instances, for example sometimes when flying from east to west, you will actually arrive at an earlier time than you took off. This is common on short flights that cross timezones and are under an hour long. For example, you could fly out of Atlanta at 4:00 PM and arrive in Alabama at 3:55 PM. This is just because of the change in timezones from EST to CST.

So as a passenger, you don’t need to worry about UTC or anything like that. The main important thing that you need to keep in mind is the changing timezones and making sure you don’t miss a connecting flight or that you don’t have plans at your destination scheduled at the wrong time!

How To Keep Track Of Timezones While Flying

As a pilot, you might be worried about keeping track of timezones while flying. What if you’re flying a long distance that traverses multiple timezones? How will you keep track of everything while you’re flying to make sure you’re making your arrival at the correct time?

The beauty in this is that as you now know, you’ll be operating in UTC as you communicate with ATC, airports, and other airlines. So you won’t really need to keep track of different timezones, necessarily. Since UTC never changes and is a time standard rather than a timezone, you’ll never need to accommodate any changes in time.

As for keeping track of local timezones as you fly, that mainly just comes with experience. Most pilots end up flying somewhat similar routes over the years, whether that’s as a private pilot or a commercial pilot, and you’ll just get used to the different times as you go.