Sleep dreams – how Qantas aims to make its Boeing 787 hub buster a jetlag buster

Qantas Boeing 787-9 VH-ZND "Yam Dreaming" at Alice Springs Airport. (Qantas/James Morgan)
Qantas’s Boeing 787-9 will begin Perth-London Heathrow flights on Saturday. (Qantas/James Morgan)

Welcome to our latest “Throwback Thursday” feature article from a past edition of Australian Aviation. Here, this August 2017 issue story looked at Qantas’s work with the University of Sydney to help reduce jetlag on its Perth-London Heathrow nonstop flights with the Boeing 787-9, which commence on Saturday. 

Anyone who has ever made the journey between Australia and Europe knows the feeling of either being unable to stay awake at three o’clock in the afternoon or staring at the bedroom wall at 3am eyes wide open.

The 24 hours of flying, the up to 11 hours’ time difference and the dry cabin air present in those aluminium (or carbon composite) tubes at 38,000ft can all add up to a travel-weary body that thinks it is midnight even though the sun sits high in the sky shining brightly.

And while there have been many studies into the humans’ circadian rhythm or body clock for shift workers such as pilots or truck drivers, there has been little investigation of jetlag in the context of long-haul air travel that kicked off shortly after the dawn of the jet age some 60 years ago.

Qantas and the University of Sydney are hoping to change that.

The airline and the university’s Charles Perkins Centre are collaborating to learn more about the impact of long-haul travel on the passenger experience.

The study, which was officially launched at the University of Sydney on June 22, hopes to better understand how elements such as movement, light, temperature, food and drink affect people before, during and after their flight.

To achieve this, Qantas is enlisting the support of some of its frequent flyers, who will don wearable technology during their travels to measure the physical and mental stages and states of people during their journey.

Qantas group executive for brand, marketing and corporate affairs Olivia Wirth says the volunteers will initially come from the airline’s 35,000 frequent flyer panel that have already volunteered to share information about their onboard experience previously.

“To begin with we will be using that panel because we know they are highly engaged,” Wirth says.

“That will be the starting point.”

Volunteers for the trial will include both frequent and infrequent flyers from a range of demographics including age and backgrounds.

Australian rugby sevens captain Ed Jenkins and model Jesinta Campbell helping launch the partnership between Qantas and the University of Sydney's Charles Perkins Centre. (Jordan Chong)
Australian rugby sevens captain Ed Jenkins and model Jesinta Campbell helping launch the partnership between Qantas and the University of Sydney’s Charles Perkins Centre. (Jordan Chong)
787 THE CATALYST FOR THE STUDY

Passengers will begin wearing what is described as a “supercharged Fitbit-type device” once Qantas takes delivery of its first Boeing 787-9 in October and deploys the aircraft on the Melbourne‑Los Angeles route from December 15 2017 and Perth-London Heathrow from March 24 2018.

Among that select group are model Jesinta Franklin and Australian Rugby Sevens Captain Ed Jenkins, the first two participants of the study.

Franklin, sporting an example of the wearable technology that will be on the wrists of frequent flyers by December, tells reporters at the launch she is delighted to participate.

“I’m really happy to be a guinea pig and be part of this project,” Franklin says.

“I’ve done my own research to see how my skin doesn’t dehydrate, for example, so it’s really great that there is going to be some real, scientific research behind flying.”

Qantas chief executive Alan Joyce says the move to order the 787-9 and deploy the aircraft on one of the world’s longest routes (Perth-London Heathrow is 7,829nm) prompted the decision to conduct the research with the University of Sydney, which has teamed up with Qantas on other areas in the past such as flight planning.

The airline began working with the Charles Perkins Centre, which brings together the University of Sydney’s experts in topics such as nutrition, sleep, physical activity and lighting among other disciplines as part of a multidisciplinary research centre, about a year ago.

Back then, the focus was initially on sleep. However, the two soon realised there was much more they could collaborate on, Charles Perkins Centre academic director Steve Simpson explains.

“We soon realised that because the Charles Perkins Centre is a richly multidisciplinary group or centre we had access to a whole series of other relevant expertise that we needed to bring together with sleep,” Prof Simpson tells Australian Aviation in an interview.

“So diet and nutrition, physical activity, how you evaluate research programs, how you actually develop education programs and professional development programs, let’s say for staff as well as passengers, the development of new technologies, wearable devices applications.

“All of this needs to come together in a way that sort of addresses the set of issues in a holistic manner. That’s what the Charles Perkins Centre is set up to be able to do.”


VIDEO: Qantas explains what it is doing with the University of Sydney’s Charles Perkins Centre to “Reshape the travel experience” in a video on its YouTube channel.

TEMPERATURE, LIGHTING AND MEALS ON 787 FLIGHTS TO BE INFLUENCED BY RESEARCH

The outcomes of the research to date will already be apparent by the time Melbourne-Los Angeles 787-9 services take off, particularly around lighting and temperature settings, as well as meal choices during a flight.

Joyce says the work on sleep has already resulted in changes to the standard cabin lighting on board the soon-to-arrive 787-9s, with the initial lighting scheme cast aside in response to the work of the Charles Perkins Centre.

Specifically, the research has highlighted the intensity and wavelength of cabin lighting that was ideal for certain stages of the 17-hour journey linking Australia and Europe.

“The sleep expert has gone to Boeing a couple of months ago and looked at their lighting centre and looked at the range of lighting options that we can do on the 787,” Joyce explains.

“He has already given us recommendations on the aircraft given the Perth-London flight about what different lighting at different stages we should be using, which has never been done before.”

Joyce promises initiatives from the partnership with the University of Sydney will benefit everyone, from passengers seated in the friendly confines of the business and premium economy cabins to those undertaking the Perth-London Heathrow ultra long‑haul journey in economy class.

“It is across the cabin. It is all passengers,” Joyce said, noting lighting, temperature and meal designs would touch every traveller in every class.

“And then for all customers we will be also giving advice on what you should do before the trip and after the trip and that will apply to everybody.”

A scientific approach has also gone into the lighting to be featured in the new Perth lounge Qantas is building as part of launching the Perth-London Heathrow nonstops.

“There are going to be showers obviously in that lounge and one of the recommendations is to give customers an option of having a blue light in the shower,” Joyce says.

“Why is that? Because, that will revitalise the customers because you want them on the first third of Perth‑London to be awake and sleep on the latter part of the flight.

An artist's impression of Qantas's new Perth Airport lounge to be located in the Terminal 3/4 precinct. (Qantas)
Qantas plans to include an outdoor area as part of its new Perth Airport lounge for its nonstop flights to London. (Qantas)
An artist's impression of Qantas's new Perth Airport lounge to be located in the Terminal 3/4 precinct. (Qantas)
The lounge design was a collaboration between SUMU Design and Australian industrial designer David Caon, who worked on Qantas’s 787-9 interiors. (Qantas)

Qantas consulting chef Neil Perry is also working with the Charles Perkins Centre as part of the partnership and will provide his recommendations on economy, premium economy and business class meals.

Perry has been tasked with ensuring Qantas serves the right combination of foods and drinks to ensure passengers walk off the 17-hour flight feeling ready to face the day ahead, noting certain ingredients can make a person feel more alert while others help promote sleep.

“It might be something a little bit spicy in the morning to get them going as they are landing. There are some vegetables that help melatonin production,” Perry told reporters at the launch.

Melatonin is a hormone produced by the brain that regulates sleep.

Prof Simpson says the study involving frequent flyers would assess the impact on the body at various stages of the flight such as takeoff, when meals are served, the lights are turned off and when the cabin temperature is adjusted.

The data from the wearable technology will then be used to determine what is the best approach for minimising the debilitating impact of jetlag.

“We worked with Qantas, with the aircraft designers, to establish essentially what is a trial where the cabin lighting, the wavelength, the intensity, the timing of lighting, cabin temperatures, menus, food, beverages the timing of the delivery of the food and beverages services and so forth have all been adjusted to reflect what we think will support the best outcomes,” Prof Simpson explains.

“But we now need to measure whether that is actually the case so what we are doing in the first instance is providing people with wearable devices which will measure their sleep wakefulness, their physical activity levels, when they are eating and all sorts of other aspects of their behaviour.

“Then we can use that to actually see whether what we think we might be changing is actually being changed in the behaviour of people and use that evidence both as discovery, a new understanding of what happens on long-haul flights, but also more importantly to feed it back into the redefining and refining of what’s delivered next.

“It is really sophisticated and that I think is the value potentially in what we are doing. It is applying this sophisticated way of thinking, evidence‑based, scientific approach, to see whether we can actually change what happens.”

There is plenty of published advice from road warriors about how to overcome jetlag, from what to drink, what to wear and when to sleep.

Prof Simpson says many of these commonsense established practices are reasonably well founded.

However, he cautions that jetlag cannot be completely beaten. Rather, its impact can be minimised.

“We do know for example that the best entrainer as it is called – shifter of the clock – is light and if you deliver light at an appropriate time and at an appropriate intensity and wavelength you can shift the clock a little bit better than if you don’t do that,” Prof Simpson says. “That’s on the ground and in the air.”

“What you should be able to do is to work towards – because your clock can’t go in one step from Perth time to London time but you can shift it about an hour and half or two hours a day towards that destination and what you want to do is to make sure you do that most effectively.

“The key there is when you deliver light, when you go to sleep, when you eat, when you are physically active.
“In general terms we know all of those things are true but optimising them and translating them into what we do on an aircraft as a passenger and also as an airline, that’s where the science will come.

“You will never beat it, because it’s basic biology, but you can work with biology to rethink what you do before, during and after a long-haul flight to make things better.”

Prof Simpson says the work with Qantas will also cover ways to reduce the risk of deep vein thrombosis (DVT) by considering what steps to take before, during and after the flight.

The entrance to the new Qantas London Heathrow lounge. (Qantas)
Another element in Qantas’s upgraded passenger offering for Perth-London Heathrow is a new premium passenger lounge at Terminal 3. (Qantas)
The cocktail bar inside the split level Qantas London Heathrow lounge. (Qantas)
The combined first and business class lounge has seating for 230 people split over two levels with views of the airfield and includes a dining section, bar and all-day barista service. There are also six shower rooms. (Qantas)
IMPACT TO BE FELT ACROSS THE FLEET

Joyce says Qantas is “investing a significant amount in the research”.

“We think it will be paid back multiple times by offering an experience that no other airline in the world will be offering,” Joyce says.

“No other airline in the world has done any research into this.

“It is driven by the 787s coming but the intention is to put it across the board on the A380s and A330s and using that material for all of our flights so all of our passengers can benefit.”

Moreover, the study is being conducted as Qantas evaluates the Boeing 777-8X and Airbus A350-900ULR as candidates for commencing Sydney-London and Sydney-New York nonstop flights some time in the 2020s.

“Airlines have gone through stage length increases through their entire history,” Joyce says.

“I was looking at the documentation about when we started flying Sydney-LA direct for the first time. It used to take 72 hours with a couple of stops on the way.

“People said people were going to have difficulty flying those. We take it for granted now. That was a step change and we are going through the next step change.”

Joyce said these studies would be increasingly important amid the proliferation of ultra long-haul flights.

“You want to have an informed scientific basis to give people advice on what you do on board the aircraft,” Joyce says.

“It’s amazing talking to the scientists [that] it has never been done before and Qantas is the first airline in the world to do it.”

As for his own approach to long-haul travel, Joyce says he tries to limit alcohol consumption when flying, sets his watch to the time at his destination at the beginning of flight and often chooses the “healthy choice” meal option.

And the chief executive put to rest any fears the study will result in the airline removing some items from the onboard menu.

“I have to say, this is not about taking anything away from customers. We will still have on board our aircraft the most amazing Australian wine, a selection of Australian beers and as much dessert as you could possibly want,” Joyce says.

“This is all about collecting information and giving information to our customers so they can make informed choices.”

UPDATE

After this story was first published, Qantas subsequently unveiled some of the food choices that will be available for the ultra long-haul Perth-London Heathrow flight.

Choices included a herbal tea with lemon verbena chamomile and lemongrass that “encourages relaxation”, a hot chocolate that has the “sleep-inducing amino acid Tryptophan to help prompt the body’s sleep cycle”, and an organic kombucha, which is a “live cultured, sparkling drink full of natural probiotics that assist with digestion”.

The Qantas Boeing 787-9 business class self-service area. (Qantas)
The Qantas Boeing 787-9 business class self-service area. (Qantas)

“Working with clinical sleep specialists, nutritionists and metabolic scientists, we’ve designed new menu options using delicious ingredients that have added benefits of hydration, aiding sleep and reducing jetlag,” Neil Perry said.

“The menu we are trialling on the Perth to London route will continue to offer a selection of customer favourites but it has some special ingredient additions and exclusions.”

Meals to be served include a tuna poke salad with sesame soy dressing. (Qantas)
Meals to be served include a tuna poke salad with sesame soy dressing. (Qantas)

Comments

  1. John says

    All of this is fine but it does not address the key issue of narrow seats in economy. My experience with the 17.2″ wide seat on the squeezeliner is that after 6 hours I became aware of how tight and uncomfortable the seat was. From that point on the flight become a major torture session and any benefit from lighting or humidity became irrelevant

  2. James says

    @Adrian P

    Where in the article do they say it’s not an issue? They’re a not saying you can’t get up and walk around.

  3. Christopher Campbell says

    The 787 premium economy needs an extra 2-3 inches of legroom to 40-41 inches.

  4. NJP says

    All looks very nice for those at the front of the plane, but will it still be “the chicken or the fish” for those at the back seated 3-3-3?

  5. Adrian P says

    20 years ago on 747s with limited inflight entertainment people did walk around, stretch and even talked to each other. Now its head sets on and the only exercise is visiting the comfort station. Wandering around does not appear to be encouraged and with limited seat pitch getting in and out from a window seat a challenge.

  6. Adrian P says

    I also refer the to CASA releases final report of review of new fatigue rules in the Industry news section.
    Crew fatigue which the airlines do not want to talk about when boasting who has the longest leg on the airline network.

  7. Doug Bath says

    As always it is the front end passengers being looked after. Strange that, as it is the economy passengers that make the flight viable.

  8. Lechuga says

    Reducing jet lag is great and all, but this will not work.

    People will avoid this run like the plague after a year or so. A stop over is easily the best way forward, either by Singapore or Dubai, (or the others depending on the airline)

    It’s too far in too small of a plane.

    The passengers would be cooked by the time they make it there, regardless of jet lag, the crew would be cooked also.

    Personally think QF9-10 should always be from Melbourne to Singapore or Dubai then on to London, none of this via Perth thing.

  9. Markie Mark says

    @Doug,

    All passengers contribute to making the flight viable, but it’s the “pointy end” passengers that make the flight profitable. That’s why almost 50% of QF’s 787-9 are configured with either Premium Economy or Business Class seats.

  10. Bill says

    It’ll be interesting to see how stiff legged the economy class passengers will be getting off the plane after all that time aloft.

  11. Nick says

    I think lots of people need to remember that a stop in Perth is a huge thing for Australians. I will boost tourism in the west and encourage many Australians to visit the west on the way to Europe in stead of other nations

  12. Rod Patching says

    As an economy class passenger this looks frightening. No blue lights and showers for us.