In it for the long haul
As Australia prepares to welcome a 17-hour flight direct to Europe, researchers are putting their minds in the sky with a new clinical trial, measuring how flying affects one's mental state, anxiety levels, immune function, sleep and jet-lag recovery
When Qantas Airways Ltd. launches its newest route from Perth to London this spring, it will be the first direct air link Australia has ever had with Europe. At just under 15,000 kilometres, it's one of the longest routes in the world – a 17-hour journey.
The daily flights will be operated by Qantas' new Boeing 787- Dreamliner. But most notably, some passengers and possibly crew will be part of a new clinical trial in the air.
In March, a research team will fit a group of volunteer Qantas customers with wearable technology to measure how flying affects their mental state and anxiety levels, their immune function, sleep patterns and recovery from jet-lag.
The team will be led by Stephen Simpson, a professor in the School of Life and Environmental Sciences at the University of Sydney, and academic director of the university's Charles Perkins Centre, which researches "lifestyle" diseases such as obesity and diabetes.
The goal of researchers is to find ways to improve the comfort of passengers on long-haul flights, Simpson says. "We have a long way to go in terms of understanding how the wide variety of influences – including nutrition, hydration, exercise, sleep and light – might work together for maximum benefit."
He says this is the first collaboration of its kind between an airline and a research institution.
Qantas and the university announced their partnership earlier this year, with Simpson predicting "the potential for extraordinary health, science and engineering discoveries."
As tantalizing as it sounds, that future is probably not just around the corner. It will take many flights and many months for Simpson and his team to gather data.
Passengers will need to be patient, but Simpson foresees groundbreaking discoveries related to that biggest bugbear of all for long-distance fliers – jet-lag.
"No doubt about it. There is a reason why the data are so limited on this important topic – namely, that nobody has had the opportunity to bring to bear such a diversity of disciplinary expertise with access to the logistical support of an airline."
Even though new breakthroughs may be down the road, Simpson's team has already reviewed the existing literature on well-being in the air and designed a system for Qantas to make cabins conducive to changing our circadian rhythms, including lowering and raising temperatures and adjusting the wavelength and strength of light.
"To the naked eye, the lighting appears entirely natural, reflecting the various cycles of sunrise, daytime, dusk and night passengers would be used to on the ground," explains Philip Capps, head of Customer Experience at Qantas.
Even the food and timing of meals served on board will change, with Australian celebrity chef and long-time Qantas culinary partner Neil Perry designing menus using foods that are known to stimulate the production of melatonin, a hormone linked to sleep and biorhythms. These might include ingredients such as turkey or nuts, which would be served at different times to mitigate the effects of jet lag.
Qantas will introduce these new procedures to its entire fleet of eight Dreamliners beginning with its Melbourne to Los Angeles flight on Dec. 15.
Even before Qantas's modifications however, Capps notes the Dreamliner is a comfortable aircraft for long-distant flights with wider seats than normal in premium economy, an extra inch of seat pitch in standard economy, and windows that are 65 per cent larger than other aircraft. According to Boeing itself, the Dreamliner's composite body is stronger than aluminum airplanes so it can withstand greater air pressure, which means passengers experience fewer headaches, less dizziness and fatigue.
While Qantas may be the first airline to partner with a university to use science to solve problems around well-being in the air, other airlines are experimenting with ways to make flying less exhausting.
In 2016 Lufthansa launched the Flying Lab, where passengers on designated flights can tune in to live presentations related to digitalization and test-related technology. On a flight from California's Silicon Valley to Frankfurt, for instance, the theme was "well-being on night flights," and passengers were offered the chance to try the Neuroon – a sleep tracking "smart" mask that mimics night and day that is designed to help a passenger get proper rest on a long flight; and the spacerseat, a cushion for taller passengers that has the effect of providing more leg room. On a flight this year, Lufthansa passengers tested the Sleep Shepherd, a headset that emits tones at different frequencies to help induce sleep.
There's no word on how these products went over, but Lufthansa has discovered that more space is still what fliers crave. On its first two Flying Labs the airline offered passengers in economy class virtual reality headsets before boarding so they could view the premium economy cabin. If they wanted to pay to upgrade, they could. According to the airline, 50 per cent more than usual succumbed to the last-minute temptation, even if it did cost them a few hundred dollars extra.
All of which confirms that gadgets and gizmos can only go so far in distracting us, something airlines are acutely aware of as they add more premium economy seats and boost business-class offerings. According to Brian Sumers who writes the Airline Innovation Report for Skift, this is "the glory age" for business class travellers.
"Almost every airline has seats that turn into a flatbed. Most airlines are investing in new airport lounges. Many airlines are improving their food and wine. Things are a lot better up front than they were a decade ago, when just about every airline has recliner seats, and not beds."
Demand for space and privacy has motivated some airlines to push private first-class suites to new heights. Emirates pioneered the idea in 2003 and at the recent Dubai Airshow unveiled its latest version; suites with up to 40 square feet of personal space on the Boeing 777-300ER, along with floor-to-ceiling walls and doors. The new suites were available beginning Dec. 1 on flights to Geneva and Brussels.
Singapore Airlines is adding six privacy suites to each of its new and existing Airbus A380 aircraft with the first ones having their debut on the Singapore-Sydney route Dec. 18. The airline says its suites have room for both a bed and chair, suggesting the bar has been raised yet again.
Those at the back of Singapore's Airbus will be getting more legroom as well as better back support with a six-way adjustable headrest with foldable wings. Mood lighting is something Cathay Pacific uses on its non-stop flights between Toronto and Hong Kong, and between Vancouver and Hong Kong with Boeing's B777-300ER and Airbus's newest widebody, the A350-900.
While long-haul flying may never be fun, at least airlines and airplane manufacturers are trying to make it more bearable. And if the team at the University of Sydney is right, we can look forward to arriving at our destination in better shape down the road.
The writer will be a guest of Qantas Airlines on its inaugural Dreamliner flight between Melbourne and Los Angeles. The airline did not review or approve this story.