Research by Qantas reveals the secret to reducing jet lag

Australian airline Qantas and the University of Sydney’s Charles Perkins Centre have joined forces to identify three key ways to reduce jet lag on long-haul flights. 

While Australian airline Qantas was operating test flights for the Project Sunrise program, which is set to directly connect Sydney with New York and London around late 2025, it partnered with the Charles Perkins Centre at the University of Sydney to conduct research into reducing the effects of jet lag on passengers. In order to collect real passenger data, Qantas operated three Project Sunrise research flights from New York and London to Sydney in 2019. 

pillow on a plane seat
© Qantas/ James D Morgan

Jet lag study by Qantas and Charles Perkins Centre

On board were 23 volunteer customers that were monitored via wearable technology that tracked movement, sleep and light exposure, and who followed a specially designed menu, lighting, sleep and movement sequences for the duration of the 20-hour flight. 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. The results were then compared to customers following a traditional in-flight eating and sleeping sequence. While the findings of the study are unpublished as yet, Qantas has shared some initial findings. 

The inflight trials tailored cabin lighting to facilitate adaption to the destination time zone, integrated simple stretch and movement activities, and adjusted the timing of meal services to align passengers’ body clocks with the destination time zone. The menu was designed to encourage wakefulness and sleep through specific items, such as pairing chicken and fish with carbohydrates, or comfort foods such as soups and milk-based desserts. The aim was to promote the brain’s production of the amino acid tryptophan to help passengers drift off more easily. 

people surrounding a qantas plane
The crew disembarking the research flight. © Qantas/ James D Morgan

How to reduce jet lag

The research indicates that reshaping the in-flight travel experience is key to reducing the effects of jet lag. Different lighting and sleep schedules, mealtimes, and specific ingredients like chili and chocolate during long-haul flights have been shown to contribute to improved traveller well-being, as are increased movement and exercise. The results include better sleep quality, less severe jet lag, and better cognitive performance immediately following the flight. The specially designed Airbus A350s that Qantas will use for Project Sunrise flights include an onboard Wellbeing Zone informed by the research. 

people stretching on a plane
Passengers stretching on board the research flight. © Qantas/ James D Morgan

“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,” says Peter Cistulli, professor of Sleep Medicine at the University of Sydney. 

Qantas Group CEO, Alan Joyce, says the research has informed the design of the new A350s. “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,” says Joyce. “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.”

a meal served on a tray table
A meal on board the research flight. © Qantas/ James D Morgan

What is jet lag?

The human body’s natural circadian rhythm of night and day time cycles is regulated by sunlight, chemical reactions in the brain, and neurotransmitters. Jet lag is a type of fatigue caused by abrupt travel across or between different time zones, which can disrupt the body’s natural circadian rhythm. Jet lag is also caused by a lack of sleep before or during travelling. 

What are the symptoms of jet lag? 

Symptoms of jet lag include fatigue, digestive upsets, impaired judgement, memory lapses, irritability, and apathy. 

How to reduce jet lag

During long flights, limit alcohol intake, increase water intake, sleep when tired – and at a time that will make sense for your arrival destination – and eat small meals frequently. Walk or move around the cabin whenever possible. Upon arriving at your destination, try to spend some time in natural sunlight to regulate your body clock. 

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