Arriving into London at 5am after a 17½ hour flight doesn’t sound like the beginning of a good business trip. It’s more like the start of a zombie marathon as you push through the day, while your hotel bed beckons from the wrong side of the clock.
Qantas hopes to change that, by changing almost everything about the way we fly today – from the types of food and drink served on board and when they’re served, to lighting (both in the air and in lounges), cabin temperatures and the advice given to travellers before and after their flight.
It’s part of an ambitious and revolutionary collaboration with health and wellness boffins from The University of Sydney’s medical hub to make passengers feel more comfortable, better rested and less jet-lagged.
And while the program is driven by the advent of the Qantas Boeing 787 and its non-stop trek between Perth and London, the results will be rolled out on other international Qantas flights including the Airbus A380s to Dubai, London and the USA, alongside Airbus A330 flights to Asia.
It also reflects the evolution of air travel away from stopovers in favour of direct flights from A to B – but with plenty of Zzzz along the way.
“Sydney to Los Angeles used to take 72 hours with a couple of stops on the way, but we take Sydney-LA for granted now,” reflects Qantas Group CEO Alan Joyce.
Indeed, for many frequent business travellers that trans-Pacific run has taken on the familiar routine of a commute.
“We’re going to be coming up to 2021 with aircraft like the Boeing 777-8X which could do Sydney or Melbourne (non-stop) to London or New York,” Joyce tells Australian Business Traveller, “and this is why these studies become even more pertinent, because as the technology gets longer in terms of range you want to have an informed scientific basis to give people advice.”
Qantas claims this is the first time any airline has dived so deeply into the science behind inflight comfort.
“It’s bringing together experts in nutrition and sleep and physical activity… to understand the science of long haul flights, to improve jet lag and wellbeing and health in the air, before and after you get to your destination,” explains Professor Steve Simpson, from the University of Sydney’s Charles Perkins Centre.
“It’s amazing this has never been done before,” Joyce adds.
“We’re investing a significant amount on this research but we think it will be paid back multiple times by offering an experience that no other airline in the world will be offering.”
Food (and drink) that’s fit for flight
A new-look Qantas menu will be built around dishes and ingredients which don’t weight you down and make you feel sluggish, and in some cases will pep you up by kick-starting your metabolism.
“There will be some ingredients, some types of vegetables we want to avoid and others we’ll want to use more,” explains Neil Perry, who is working with Sydney University’s Charles Perkins Centre on a detailed re-think of sky-high dining.
“Digestion and nutrition affects everything hormonally throughout your body, so that’s what we’re going to be able to tap into.”
“There are ingredients that relax you, there are ones that promote melatonin to help you sleep, and ones that energise your metabolism to help you get going again in the morning,” Perry elaborates.
“We may offer something spicy for breakfast to pep up your metabolism and help get the gut moving, because the process of waking up physically happens through the stomach.”
“It’s all about getting people ready in their eating and sleeping habits on board so they get to their destination feeling better,” Perry says.
Botanica juices and Perry’s Quench line will help travellers keep hydrated, with Quench juices available the Boeing 787’s self-serve bars, rehydration mocktails and probiotic starters served as a wake-up shots.
While this flyer-friendly menu will be at its best at the pointy end of the plane, to suit business travellers who need to hit the ground running, the core aspects will extend all the way through to economy.
“17 hours is a particularly long haul in economy,” Perry admits, “so you really do want to eat well, be properly hydrated, get a great sleep and start to get yourself into the London timezone before you arrive.”
Comfort food isn't going anywhere
But travellers won’t be force-led kale, quinoa and kombucha juice, or told by stern-faced crew that they can’t have dessert unless they finish their greens.
“We’ll still serve the most amazing Australian wines, a selection of Australian beers, and as much dessert as you can possibly want!” laughs Joyce, who admits that dessert is a weakness of his own on those long flights.
“But we also want other dishes which help improve wellbeing and health in the air and help defeat jet lag when you get to your destination, so that customers can make informed choices.”
Qantas is looking at ways to emphasise those flyer-friendly menu options beyond the small ‘healthy choice’ icon, with explanations of why certain dishes will be beneficial for travellers.
“If you want your favourite dish, your steak sandwich, we’ll still have that. But we’ll also have recommendations to tell people that this is going to aid you in jetlag, getting longer periods of sleep and those sorts of things.”
Let there be light
The Boeing 787 enjoys a home ground advantage when it comes to feeling better above the clouds.
The lower cabin altitude, increased humidity, larger windows, fresher air and even a smoother ride compared to conventional jets will provide a handy assist to Qantas’ own efforts.
But another aspect of the Dreamliner will for the first time be called into play – its LED lighting with lets airlines dial through a rainbow palette of colour schemes.
Qantas sent a sleep expert from the Charles Perkins Centre to Boeing to examine the lighting options and their effect on passengers.
It turns out there are specific wavelengths which encourage the body’s product of the hormone melatonin, which drives the circadian rhythms of the body clock.
“He’s given us recommendations on the aircraft for Perth-London, on what lighting we should be using at different stages of the flight, which from a scientific standpoint has never been done before.”
So Qantas threw out its original Boeing 787 LED lighting scheme and is adopting one tailored for each route and geared towards promoting sleep and wakefulness at the appropriate times.
Also changing will be the cabin temperature settings.
It’s a bane of travellers that so many flights seem either too hot or too cold, and of course individual preferences and body types come into play.
But Qantas is mapping out a ‘cabin temperature profile’ for flights which will vary the settings throughout the flight, again to help encourage passengers to relax, to sleep and to wake up.
“Lighting, temperates food and drink, all these are things which we can influence which are going to make it more comfortable,” Joyce says.
Qantas will also be signing up passengers to contribute to the project by wearing Fitbit-style wristbands during their regular flights “to track their physical and mental states and their sleep patterns,” Joyce says.
The wristbands will be sent back to the Charles Perkins Centre to analyse the data and make further recommendations “to see we can improve the experience. It will go through iterations, as all things do, and get better and better over time.”
These tech trials will begin on Qantas’ Boeing 787 flights from Melbourne to Los Angeles and involve travellers “from a range of demographics,” Joyce says.
“We want to have very frequent flyers and infrequent flyers, people from every age group, to make sure we have sufficient samples and enough data too make the research relevant.”
Qantas’ new Perth international lounge (below) will adopt some aspects of the research, not just in the dining areas but even the shower suites.
These will be fitted with a blue light which emits a wavelength to subtly revitalise the body, Joyce says. “We’ll be recommending that customers switch this on because you want them to be awake on the the first third of the Perth-London flight and then sleep on the later part of the flight.”
Pre-flight and post-flight
All travellers booked on the Perth-London flight will also be sent an email with advice on how to prepare for their flight, tips for during the flight and what they can do upon landing to help get over jet-lag – such as what to eat, the importance of rehydrating and the value of getting out into the sunlight for a walk.