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Airlines work to make extra-long flights bearable, at least for those in premium seats

Qantas' business-class seats have aisle access and can

Qantas' business-class seats have aisle access and can stay fully reclined from takeoff to landing. Photo Credit: Quantas Airline/Brent Winstone

It will take all six of the “Lord of the Rings” and “Hobbit” movies to fill the 17 hours and 20 minutes on Qantas’ new flight from Chicago to Brisbane, Australia.

The 8,901-mile flight, which begins operating next spring, will become the longest nonstop flight operating out of O’Hare International Airport, nudging aside an Air Zealand flight to Auckland that covers 8,181 miles.

Lighter, more fuel-efficient planes are making it possible for airlines to offer longer flights that cross more time zones. But for many travelers, spending half a day or more in the air is a recipe for stiff muscles and serious jet lag.

Airlines are trying to help travelers adjust to new time zones by playing with cabin lighting and meal timing, passing out cooling gel pillows and pajamas for better rest, and encouraging passengers to move around.

“It’s not just about making it a comfortable flight, but making sure that when you get to your destination, you feel as good as you can,” says Phil Capps, Qantas’ head of customer product and service.

Business-class seats have aisle access and can stay fully reclined from takeoff to landing, while premium economy seats have headrests designed to accommodate ergonomic pillows. Economy passengers also get more space between each seat, Qantas said.

To help travelers avoid jet lag, the carrier tinkered with light, temperature and meal timing, which can all affect the body’s internal clock, Capps says. Cool hues such as blue, for instance, tend to make people feel awake, while red and orange light can make them more inclined to sleep.

Even delaying the first meal service by an hour or so, rather than serving immediately after takeoff, can start helping passengers adjust to the right time zone, he says. The menu on the Perth-London flights was also designed to help travelers stay hydrated and feel ready to rest at the right times.

Qantas’ Dreamliners have self-service bars where passengers in economy and business class can grab beverages including herbal tea and juices.

Helping travelers start adjusting to a new time zone in-flight makes sense, sleep experts say. The catch is that passengers aren’t necessarily starting on the same schedule — some might be starting their journey, while others are on a connecting flight mid-trip, says Phyllis Zee, an expert in sleep and circadian rhythm disorders at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine.

On United Airlines’ long-haul international flights, business-class seats come with two blankets — one lighter, one warmer — as well as cooling gel pillows. Mattress pads are also available.

There are noise-reducing headphones and in-flight entertainment systems have channels meant to provide relaxing background noise and visuals, such as guided meditations and ambient video of outdoor landscapes, says Mark Krolick, United’s vice president of marketing.

And United’s international business class, Polaris, has one perk that’s just for flights over 12 hours: pajamas.


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