For decades, travelers have stoically endured jetlag as an unavoidable menace on long journeys. Now, as airlines push for record-breaking non-stop flights halfway around the planet, efforts to counter the debilitating symptoms are turning into a billion-dollar industry.
Fresh insight into the physical and emotional toll of ultra-long haul travel should emerge this weekend when Qantas flies direct from New York to Sydney. No airline has ever completed that route without stopping. At nearly 20 hours, it’s set to be the world’s longest flight, leaving the U.S. on Friday and landing in Australia on Sunday morning.
This will be more than an endurance exercise. Scientists and medical researchers in the cabin will turn Qantas’s brand-new Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner into a high-altitude laboratory. They’ll screen the brains of the pilots for alertness, while monitoring the food, sleep and activity of the few dozen passengers, including selected media, to see how humans hold up to the ordeal.
The proliferation of super-long flights – Singapore Airlines resumed non-stop services to New York last year – is partly driven by the development of lighter, more aerodynamic aircraft that can fly further.
The physical burden on customers is putting a renewed focus on jetlag, and creating a supermarket of products and home-made creations to ease the suffering. In that shopping basket: melatonin tablets, Pfizer's anti-anxiety medication Xanax, and Propeaq light-emitting glasses that claim to get the body back on track. And yes, there’s an app for that and many other potential remedies.
Timeshifter (US$36.99 per year) creates personalized anti-jetlag plans telling you when to seek or avoid sunlight, caffeine or sleep, based on the destination. Uplift (US$19.99 per year) generates a self-administered, five-minute acupressure plan according to your new time zone. ByeByeJetLag (US$7.99) plays a 15-minute, in-flight “audio guide” to set your body clock to the destination, while the free Entrain tells you one thing before your trip: when to seek and avoid sunlight.
The potential customer base is staggering. The International Air Transport Association expects some 4.6 billion people to take a flight in 2019, a total that will jump to 8.2 billion in 2037.
Demand for jet-lag therapies is growing at about 6% each year and the industry will be worth US$732 million in 2023, according to BIS Healthcare. The broader sleeping-disorder market – dominated by pills – is worth US$1.5 billion and will swell to US$1.7 billion by 2023, GlobalData says, adding that more than 80 drugs targeting disturbed sleep are in clinical development.
Jetlag typically strikes when a traveler crosses three times zones or more in quick order, leaving the body’s internal clock running to the timetable at home. The chief complaint after touching down is often overwhelming fatigue during the day or merciless insomnia at night. The fallout can be worse heading east, because traveling in that direction effectively reverses the normal day-and-night cycle.
Unsettling as they are, those ailments barely do jetlag justice.
Each of the billions of cells in the human body has its own clock, and vital processes including heart function, food absorption and metabolism are all disrupted when organs get out of step, said Carrie Partch, a biochemist and associate professor at the University of California Santa Cruz who has studied the circadian rhythm for 20 years.
“Jetlag is more than just an inconvenience,” Partch said in an interview. “It’s pretty devastating physiologically. If you’re a constant traveler, you’ll probably put on more weight, you’ll probably have cardiovascular challenges and you may have some behavioral changes.”
While researchers in this field understand how light enters the brain and adjusts the master clock, they’re still learning more. As recently as 2017, scientists won a Nobel prize for discovering molecular mechanisms that control circadian rhythms. Even if the core proteins of a rodent can be manipulated in a laboratory to speed up internal clock adjustment, a fast-acting pill that can do the same for frequent flyers is a way off, Partch said.
Scientists have found exercise and the right food can help synchronize the body to a new time zone, though research has also repeatedly shown sunlight is the most powerful tool. A University of Boulder Colorado study in 2017 said body-clock adjustment can be rapidly achieved by exposure to natural light alone.
Friday’s flight from New York, and another from London later this year, are key tests for Qantas as it prepares to start direct commercial services from those cities to Sydney as soon as 2022. The airline calls it Project Sunrise. If successful, Qantas says other super-long, non-stop routes from Australia’s east coast to South America and Africa might follow.
Airbus and Boeing are vying to supply the carrier with new long-range aircraft that can reach the destination with a full load and fuel to spare. Qantas plans to make a decision to press ahead with these flights, or ditch the idea, by the end of 2019.