Research suggests ways to reduce jet lag for long-haul flights

Research suggests ways to reduce jet lag for long-haul flights

Research findings by Australian airline Qantas and the University of Sydney’s Charles Perkins Centre released today show it is possible to reduce the impacts of jetlag by reshaping the inflight travel experience.

Different lighting and sleep schedules, mealtimes, and specific ingredients like chilli and chocolate during long-haul flights have been shown to contribute to improved traveller wellbeing. Movement and exercise are, unsurprisingly, a key element.

The world-first research was conducted during test flights for Qantas’ Project Sunrise program, which will connect Sydney directly with New York and London for the first time from late 2025.

Not a morning yoga sesson.

The airline has been working with the University of Sydney’s Charles Perkins Centre since 2015 when it first began preparations to launch Perth to London direct flights.

Qantas operated three Project Sunrise research flights from New York and London to Sydney in 2019 in partnership with Australian researchers to collect real-world passenger data.

Researchers travelled on the aircraft and monitored 23 volunteer customers who were fitted with wearable device technology during the 20-hour flights as they followed a specially designed menu, lighting, sleep and movement sequences. For more information and images, click here.

Initial findings, as yet unpublished, indicate that, compared to customers on a traditional inflight sequence of eating and sleeping, those on the tailored schedule experienced:

  • Less severe jet lag (self-reported)
  • Better sleep quality inflight
  • Better cognitive performance in the two days after flight

The inflight trials involved tailored cabin lighting schedules to facilitate adaption to the destination time zone and integrating simple stretch and movement activities.

(Charles Perkins Centre)

They also adjusted the timing of meal services to align the body clock and encouraged wake and sleep by using specific menu items including fish and chicken paired with fast-acting carbohydrates, as well as comfort foods like soups and milk-based desserts. The aim was to promote the brain’s production of the amino acid tryptophan (‘Tryp’) to help passengers drift off more easily.

Not holding the wall up.

The specially designed Airbus A350s that Qantas will use for Project Sunrise flights include an onboard Wellbeing Zone informed by the research and unveiled today in New York, where passengers can take time out to stretch and do simple exercises onboard, guided by video screens.

Peter Cistulli, Professor of Sleep Medicine at the University of Sydney said while the research was ongoing, there were clear signs that the interventions implemented during the trial flights reduced the impact of ultra long-haul travel.

“The early results are promising, and it’s given us great momentum to look to the next stage of customer research to support Project Sunrise product and service design,” said Professor Cistulli.

“We have a multi-disciplinary team of more than ten researchers from medicine, science and engineering backgrounds working together on this project. This includes sleep researchers, circadian experts, nutrition and movement experts. No airline has ever done this kind of research before.

Not pulling an 80s dance move.

“The early findings have given us optimism that we can make a real difference to the health and wellbeing of international travellers thanks to this partnership with Qantas.”

Qantas Group CEO Alan Joyce said the national carrier was excited by the prospect of minimising jetlag and revolutionising international flying for all travellers.

“Given our geography, Qantas has a long history of using imagination and innovation to overcome the tyranny of distance between Australia and the rest of the world,” said Mr Joyce.

“Now that we have the aircraft technology to do these flights, we want to make sure the customer experience evolves as well, and that’s why we’re doing this research and designing our cabins and service differently.

“Our A350s will have about 100 fewer seats than most of our competitors, which gives us room for more space in all classes as well as a Wellbeing Zone for Premium Economy and Economy passengers to stretch. People can choose how they spend their time but we’ll make recommendations based on science around menu choices and best times to eat or rest. That extends to before and after the flight to improve how people feel when they arrive on the other side of the world.

“Importantly, these direct flights actually cut total travel time by more than three hours compared to one-stop services.”

Charles Perkins Centre and Qantas will take part in a first ever combined lighting workshop at Airbus’ Hamburg headquarters later this year where specialists will design the lighting settings for the aircraft, including reviewing the optimal brightness and colour tone settings for each part of the flight.

Parallel research has been done to manage crew wellbeing on these flights, which also draws on experience from other ultra long-haul flights operated by Qantas.

Qantas is scheduled to take delivery of its first A350 in late 2025, with the Project Sunrise launch route between Sydney and New York expected to take off shortly after.

Background on QF7878 New York to Sydney non-stop research fight in November 2019:

The aim of the research was to test strategies to reduce jetlag and promote inflight health.
Passengers were fitted with wearable device technology to track movement, sleep and light exposure.
Customers experienced a difference in food and beverage menus and service timings to encourage body clocks to adjust to the destination time zone.
Specific times were allocated for out of seat movement and activities.
Passengers completed a test on an iPad, similar to a game of “Whack a Mole”, to gauge reaction time and attention.
Passengers kept a daily log for a week prior to the flight, during the flight and for two weeks after the flight and noted how they felt throughout the study.

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