How flying on the 787 Dreamliner can help you minimise jet lag

Sep 18, 2021

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Jet lag is classed as a behavioural sleep disorder and, simply put, it’s the difference between where your body thinks you are and where you actually are.

The key to reducing the effects of jet lag is to get your body’s internal clock in sync with the local time as quickly as possible. The best way to do this is to sleep according to your new time zone.

As we all know, however, getting a good sleep on a flight can be a challenge. It’s why people pay thousands of dollars for a comfortable bed at the front of the aircraft.

When creating a new aeroplane, designers have this at the forefront of their minds. The more conducive the cabin environment is to achieve better sleep, the more passengers will want to travel on an aircraft and thus the more aircraft they are likely to sell.

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How the 787 helps reduce jet lag

The 787 Dreamliner (even the marketing name has sleep in mind) has a number of features that, together, help make the cabin environment the best place in the sky to sleep, therefore minimising the effects of jet lag.

Lower cabin altitude

787 dreamliner boeing fresh
The cabin altitude on the 787 Dreamliner is much lower than on other aircraft (Photo by Charlie Page / The Points Guy.)

According to a 2007 study in The New England Journal of Medicine, some passengers on long-haul flights experience symptoms similar to those experienced by people suffering from acute mountain sickness. These symptoms are normally attributed to sitting for longer periods of time in a confined environment or being dehydrated.

What people don’t realise is that the air pressure in the cabin of some older types of aircraft is equivalent to being 8,000 feet or more up a mountain. As a result, the study suggested that some of these long-haul symptoms were directly related to the decreased oxygen in the cabin air. They found that keeping the cabin altitude as low as possible will reduce the discomfort experienced by passengers.

The carbon-fibre structure of the 787 allows the aircraft to be pressurised to a much higher level than on many other aircraft types. The lower the cabin altitude, the better you feel both during and after the flight, allowing your body to adjust to your new time zone more quickly.

Fresh air from outside

Better air quality on the 787 allows you to sleep better (Photo by Sergio Dionisio/Getty Images)

Most conventional aircraft types, such as the Boeing 777 and the Airbus A350, use bleed air to pressurise the cabin. As part of the engine operation, some air is ‘bled’ out of the high-pressure compression stage and then into the air conditioning system. This air is then used to pressurise the aircraft and keep the cabin at a comfortable temperature. On the Dreamliner, however, things are different.

Instead of taking air from the engines, fresh air is drawn directly from outside the aircraft, forward of the engines, by two dedicated inlets.

From here, the air is fed to four electrically powered cabin air compressors (CACs) where it’s pressurised and sent to two air conditioning packs. The packs are responsible for conditioning the air to a certain temperature and humidity and then sending it towards the cabin.

Not only does this mean the air inside the cabin is of much higher quality, but it also means that there are savings to be made externally. As high-pressure air in the engines is not feeding the air conditioning system, all of it can be used to generate thrust. So, the engines are much more fuel-efficient.

The humidity of the air on a 787 is also a lot higher than on many other aircraft types, particularly compared to the 777 in my experience. I’m sure you’re familiar with the feeling of waking up from a long flight with a dry nose and a sore, parched throat — not ideal. The more humid air on the 787 prevents this and allows you to sleep more peacefully.

Gust suppression system

Don’t you just love it when you’ve finally started to nod off and then you hit turbulence? No matter much you try to ignore those bumps, being jolted around makes it much more difficult to get back to sleep.

Turbulence is caused by variations in the wind speed and direction hitting the aircraft and affecting the lift over the wings. An increase in wind speed creates more lift, a decrease creates less lift. Multiply this by hundreds of times a second and you get what you experience as turbulence.

In order to counter this, designers at Boeing utilised a number of sensors around the aircraft that detect and measure changes in angular velocity and air pressure. Lateral gusts of wind are recorded by gyroscopic sensors and vertical movement is recorded by accelerometers. Changes in air pressure around the aircraft are also detected.

All this information is sent to central processing computers that, in a fraction of a second, calculate not only what is happening to the aircraft but also what needs to be done to counteract those movements. The computers then send electrical signals to the actuators that power the control surfaces on the wings and tail to counteract the forces the aircraft is experiencing.

The result is that as the aircraft instantly reacts to the turbulence-creating forces, the bumps that you feel in your seat are decreased and you can get back to sleep and adjust to your new time zone.

Quieter engines

Scalloping on the rear of the 787 engines help to reduce noise (Photo by Nicolas Economou/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

The engines on the 787 are high-bypass engines, meaning most of the air drawn in isn’t actually used in combustion to generate thrust. Instead, the engine design creates a duct whereby 90% of the air flows around the outside of the engine core. This is called the bypass ratio and, at 9 to 1, the 787 engines have one of the highest ratios in the industry.

If you look at the rear of the 787 engine, you’ll notice that the engine casings seem to have had pieces cut out of them, creating a circle of rounded teeth. This is called scalloping.

As the cooler bypass air passes over these points, it is directed toward the hot air stream, where it mixes slightly. This mixing reduces the noise generated as the hot air comes into contact with the atmosphere.

This results in much lower engine noise experienced in the cabin, helping passengers sleep better.

Bigger, dimmable windows

Bigger, dimmable windows on the 787 allow passengers to sleep better. (Photo by Zach Honig / The Points Guy.)

Snagging a window seat and taking in the views as you traverse the globe is one of the joys of air travel. However, the joy can be short-lived when everyone else is trying to sleep and you’re the only one allowing light to stream into the cabin.

You either close the window and lose the views or leave it open and risk having your seat kicked for the next 12 hours.

But when you’re flying on the 787, you get the best of both worlds. Instead of having conventional pull down blinds, the windows on the Dreamliner have a special mid-layer that can be dimmed by the use of a switch.

Using electrochromic technology, an electrical current is passed through a transparent gel that contains minerals capable of generating colour. When the passenger presses the button to darken the window, the current increases and this causes the gel to darken. It’s not an all-or-nothing action, either. By adjusting the tint to the desired amount, the passenger can stop sunlight from streaming into the cabin whilst still being able to see out of the window.

How to deal with jet lag

Although you can’t stop jet lag from happening, there are certain things you can do to help get your body clock back on track. So, what is the best way to deal with jet lag? It’s very much a case of find out what works for you, but here are my favourite methods:

Set your watch to destination time

With your watch set to destination time, try to eat and sleep as you will in that new time zone during the flight. If you’d be having lunch at your destination, have lunch on the flight. If you’d be sleeping there, try and sleep. Bring food, a sleep mask and earplugs to help.

When you land, keep to local time

It’s very easy to land after a long flight and go rest because your body is telling you it’s the middle of the night. This tends to be the case when travelling west. Don’t do it!

Try and stay up till 10 p.m. and then you’ll sleep a full night. Conversely, when heading east, set an alarm for your normal wake up time and make sure you actually get up. Keeping the curtains slightly open will let sunlight in, waking you naturally and peacefully. If you really can’t keep your eyes open, a quick 90-minute nap is fine, but make sure you set an alarm and get up when it goes off.

Keep the room cool

To achieve sleep, our body has to cool down and reach a certain temperature. So, a cool room, no more than 21 degrees Celsius, usually promotes better sleep. My personal preference is 19 degrees: You can always pull another duvet over yourself if you get too cold.

Have a cool shower before bed

Do you know how fresh you feel when you have a shower first thing in the morning? The same benefits can be felt by having a cool shower before bed. Our bodies accumulate more grime and sweat during a normal day than we’d like to admit.

By taking a cool shower before bed, your pores are clearer and your body feels fresh, enabling you to relax into a better quality of sleep.

Exercise

This is a personal favourite of mine. Exercise invigorates your body and mind, makes you feel less lethargic and promotes a better quality of sleep. Even a gentle walk outdoors in natural daylight is a great way to help you stay awake when trying to adapt to a new time zone.

Bottom line

Jet lag is an unavoidable aspect of long-haul travel. However, by actively managing your sleep patterns, the effects of jet lag can be greatly reduced. How you fly can also help with this.

Not everyone can afford to fly in the comfiest seats at the front. Even if you’re in coach, however, there are a number of things you can do to help manage your sleep — one of them being the type of aircraft you fly.

So, next time you have a choice of flight options, pay a little more attention to the type of aircraft being used to operate the journey – it may well make a massive difference to how jet lags affects you.

Feature photo by ColorBlind Images via Getty Images. 

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