Can science slam jetlag? Airlines seek help for 19-hour flights

By Bloomberg News, February 6 2018
Can science slam jetlag? Airlines seek help for 19-hour flights

A wave of ultra-long flights that will get you halfway around the world in one hop is pushing airlines to deal with the one extra you can’t escape: Relentless insomnia, debilitating fatigue and tormented bowels, better known as jet lag.

Qantas, which will start the first non-stop service between Australia and Europe in March, is working with scientists in Sydney to discover ways to limit body-clock breakdown on the 17-hour flight. They’ve tried to make the color and intensity of the jet’s interior lights mimic dawn and dusk. Cabin temperatures and specially made meals will aim to put passengers to sleep or keep them awake - depending on the time at the destination.

The Perth-London route is the latest endurance test as new aircraft technologies stretch the time a plane can stay profitably in the air.

Emirates Airline, Qatar Airways and United Airlines are part of the movement, with flights from the Middle East to New Zealand or Houston to Sydney. The delivery of a new Airbus model later this year will allow Singapore Airlines to resume its 19-hour marathon from Singapore to New York, an epic stress test for mind and body.

Key to the problem is circadian disruption – messing with the internal body clock that regulates everything from brainwave activity to hormone production and cell regeneration.

The main cue for resetting that clock is light, said Steve Simpson, academic director of the University of Sydney’s Charles Perkins Centre, which is carrying out the research with Qantas. But there’s a baked-in biological catch: the clock can only reset by about 90 minutes a day, even in the right conditions. An ill-timed dose of sunshine or a badly chosen snack at the wrong hour can mean days of suffering, he said.

“What you can do is make sure you’re pushing as quickly as you can to the destination time zone and getting the timing of things right,” said Simpson. “The way you feel, the way you function - mentally through to bowel movements – is all ultimately controlled by your body-clock.”

Jetlag can't be beat, but can be tamed

The Qantas tieup with psychologists, nutritionists and sleep experts at the Charles Perkins Centre highlights an uncomfortable truth about ultra-long-haul jet travel: there’s no way to completely avoid jet lag.

But to fill the new long-range jets, Qantas and rivals like Qatar Airways, which flies from Doha to Auckland, need humans to better tolerate the effects of crossing the world in less than a day.

For airlines, the stakes are huge. Qantas is taking eight 787-9 Boeing Dreamliners and has options and rights on another 45, a total investment of about US$15 billion at current prices. Singapore Air has ordered seven ultra-long range A350-900s from Airbus, listed as being worth about US$317 million each.

And it doesn’t end there. As intercontinental air travel becomes affordable to more people outside the developed markets in Europe and North America, the demand for day-long direct flights is likely to rise.

Long-haul journeys also increase the risk of a range of afflictions including depression and obesity, Simpson said.

To learn more, his team will wrap monitoring devices around the wrists and thighs of about 20 passengers on the Perth-London flight on March 24 to see how their bodies cope.

On that route, lights nestled all over the cabin will be phased in over 15 minutes to soften the blow from jet lag, said Phil Capps, Qantas’ head of product planning & development. Blue light triggers wakefulness and yellow or orange tones encourage sleep, he said.

“To create that natural light on an aircraft traveling many thousands of feet in the air at a very fast speed requires a lot of science,” said Capps.

Qantas has challenged both big planemakers to build a jet by 2022 that can fly 20 hours fully loaded from Sydney to London without a break. Called Project Sunrise, it would put Rio de Janeiro, Cape Town, New York or Paris within direct reach of Australia’s eastern seaboard, Qantas says.

While these very long flights have their own unique set of challenges, they can allow airlines to attract more higher-paying passengers in business class, who will pay a premium for the saving in time, said Joanna Lu, the Hong Kong-based head of Asian advisory at Flight Ascend Consultancy.

“Being stuck on an airliner for more than 18 hours is hard to bear,” said Lu. “Unless you fly business."


Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

17 May 2011

Total posts 18

I want to wear a monitoring device - really I do, in J preferably. :)

I think its interesting that for the 17 hour flight from Perth I depart in an afternoon / evening, timing for an 8 hour rest / sleep cycle and then wake for a 12 hour "day" cycle to arrive early morning. I think there will need to be a lot of science or GnT to break that mixture but I will try.

12 Dec 2012

Total posts 1034

I rarely, if ever, get "jetlag".
It's really all about planning for the destination timezone before going. Flight length and departure times can help as well.

For example, when the QF LAX flights depart back to Australia, at ~10pm-midnight local, it's ~5-7pm in Australia. I don't want to go to sleep right away. I want to stay awake for the first third to half the flight, then sleep.

The only flights I really have problems with are the short ~6 hour overnight flights like SIN-TYO or the midday departures from Asia to Europe.

During my last trip, I got surveys from QF asking if I wanted to take part in studies about jetlag and long haul flights. I replied 'yes', but haven't heard anything back.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

18 Jun 2015

Total posts 57

In my experience flights westward are easier on jetlag unless going to Europe as you are going backwards in time. However eastward journeys on the home bound are a real pain

02 Feb 2018

Total posts 5

pretty simple solution - stop cramming people into economy. There has to be a better way to design seats so that they can actually ALLOW people to sleep. As much as we'd all love to fly Business, it's just not going to happen every time. How about a seat that elongates after take off down into the floor so that the pitch is at least 45 degrees AND a fully supported headrest. How hard can it be??

09 Jan 2016

Total posts 44

Agreed, Qantas’ 17” wide over 17 hours is diabolical.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

18 Jul 2015

Total posts 27

The 90 minutes per day is interesting.

?plan your jetlag as well as your travel?
I normally just set my watch to arrival time, perhaps could do it better

Qatar Airways

06 Jul 2016

Total posts 48

IMHO the sensation of 'jet lag' is a combination of the body clock issue plus one's general physical wellbeing and hydration level. Although AusBT readers often slate the 787, I find it leaves me in a much better physical state than any other plane, and I believe that's because it's the only one pumping fresh moist cabin air from outside, ie not from an engine bleed.

I honestly felt better when I got off a QR 787 in DOH than when I got on it in either HND or KUL (in J).
Despite my reservations about not being able to stretch the legs in a bar/lounge area, I am happy to try out QF's PER-LHR route because it's on a Dreamliner.

Virgin Australia - Velocity Rewards

05 Sep 2016

Total posts 13

Never had jetlag. Tired, yes, but not jetlag. I always ensure I sleep at least half the trip (to Europe) via a combination of naps on both legs, but with emphasis on the night time for my destination. I usually aim to arrive in the morning, which also helps with the adjustment. And I never, ever, convert the time (other than for communicating with home) and consider what my body clock thinks it is. Mind over matter! Only ever travelled Economy or Premium Economy (other than a single free upgrade to Business for Abu Dhabi to Frankfurt).

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