Disrupted sleep, irritability, brain fog: Anyone who’s traveled abroad has undoubtedly experienced a few of jet lag’s symptoms, which only worsen with every time zone crossed.
So as international travel rebounds in 2023, and 15-hour-plus “ultra long haul” flights reappear on airline schedules, it’s fitting that one of the longest-haul carriers is revisiting ways to combat this perennial problem.
But is there a magic formula for alleviating, if not eliminating, the effects of jet lag? Qantas, which currently operates three of the world’s five longest flights (Perth–London, Melbourne–Dallas, and Auckland–New York), may have the answer. The airline just released its findings from a study of traveler well-being on long-distance flights and shared details about the aircraft it’s designing in response: an advanced jumbo jet, outfitted with a “Wellbeing Zone” for in-flight workouts, plus specially designed seats, meals, and lighting. It will have its world premiere on the Aussie flag carrier’s Sydney–New York nonstop service at the end of 2025.
The plane, an Airbus A350-1000 that has yet to be built, will effectively be a flying laboratory for how an airline can influence and improve its customers’ well-being. At a recent media briefing in New York, Qantas CEO Alan Joyce described the race to construct a plane capable of carrying a full payload for nearly 10,000 miles without stopping—1,000 miles longer than any commercial flight in service—as the equivalent of “the moon shot.” The jet will also operate on Qantas’s planned nonstop between London and Sydney, launching sometime after the New York debut; at 10,573 miles and up to 22 hours, it is set to be the longest flight in the world. The two marathon runs are being marketed as “Project Sunrise.”
With the pair of new flights, passengers face the prospect of spending nearly an entire day in the air, Joyce noted. “We have a long history of using imagination and innovation to overcome the tyranny of distance between Australia and the rest of the world,” he said. “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.”
Test flights conducted by Qantas in 2019, with the University of Sydney’s Charles Perkins Centre, a health research institute, drew on the experiences of 23 volunteers who, outfitted with wearable technology and accompanied by a team of scientists, flew on three flights of more than 20 hours each. During each trip, the airline tried out varying approaches to onboard services, such as meal timing, turning down the lights, and the ability to move about the plane.
The just-released results show it is possible to reduce the impacts of jet lag “by reshaping the inflight travel experience,” the carrier said in a statement. One revelation was that the typical airline routine of dimming the lights soon after the first meal is served, which may conform with the clock at the departure city, only prolongs the adjustment period at the destination, said Peter Cistulli, a professor of sleep medicine at the University of Sydney who was involved in the experiment. The test flight showed that scheduling a longer rest period later in the flight notably improved the quality of sleep and passengers’ cognitive abilities upon waking (which the carrier measured by giving the test subjects games like “whack a mole”).
“The early results are promising,” Cistulli said. The airline also experimented with different mealtimes to help readjust fliers’ internal clocks, and even with specific ingredients like chile and chocolate. And to encourage the brain’s production of tryptophan, an amino acid that helps people drift off, the airline tried pairing protein items like fish and chicken with fast-acting carbohydrates, along with “comfort foods” like soups and milk-based desserts.
The A350-1000 jetliner is also being equipped with 100 fewer seats than in the standard airline layout, giving more legroom to all passengers, not just those in the pointy end of the plane. Some of the extra real estate will be dedicated to the planned Wellbeing Zone for premium economy and economy passengers. The space will likely have room for six to eight people at a time, sculpted wall panels and handholds to help with stretching, a hydration station and snacks, and a video showing specific exercises. A carrier spokesperson said details are still being worked out.
The rest of the new A350 will try to improve passengers’ comfort as well. The first-class cabin will be made up of six enclosed suites, each with a flat bed, a reclining armchair, and a large dining table/desk that can fit two people. Business-class passengers will also get individual privacy with a sliding door plus lie-flat seats. Premium economy seats will have a spacious seat pitch (the distance between one seatback and the next) of 40 inches, calf rests, and headrests with large, eight-inch side wings. Even in economy, the seats will have the airline’s most spacious seat pitch in that class, at 33 inches. And everyone gets an entertainment screen with Bluetooth connectivity and at least two fast-charging outlets.
Qantas’s goal with all its research and testing is that no matter which cabin passengers sit in, they’ll be comfortable enough to ward off jet lag and arrive in their destination feeling good. Still, the ultimate anti-jet-lag strategy might be to splurge and sit upfront, in one of those luxe first-class suites.
Barbara Peterson Barbara Peterson is AFAR’s special correspondent for air, covering breaking airline news and major trends in air travel. She is author of Blue Streak: Inside JetBlue, the Upstart That Rocked an Industry and is a winner of the Lowell Thomas Award for Investigative Reporting.