I never thought I’d be doing the Macarena at 2 a.m. at 35,000 feet, but when researchers from the University of Sydney suggested it was the best way to keep jet lag at bay, I joined in.
NBC NEWS was the only U.S. broadcast team on board a record-breaking Qantas Airways research flight, flying nonstop from New York’s JFK Airport to Sydney.
The flight had a total travel time of 19 hours and 16 minutes, and by 7:30 a.m. Sunday, we were all happy to drag ourselves out of our seats and put our feet on the ground in Australia.
Qantas called the flight “Project Sunrise,” a research flight to test the effects of a 19-20 hour flight on both passengers and pilots. Qantas wants to add the nonstop flight to its regular service, but CEO Alan Joyce said the airline must first convince Australian regulators it’s safe.
“We need to extend the duty times for the pilots from 20 hours to 22 hours, maybe to 24 hours” for it to work, he said.
The airline plans to do a second JFK to Sydney test flight and a third one from London to Sydney.
On our flight, four pilots took turns sleeping in the crew quarters ?— two twin-sized beds located just above the forward galley.
For 20 days before, during and after the flight, each pilot is keeping a log of his/her sleeping and activity patterns. Once the flight began, they all wore an EEG scanner on their heads to measure brain activity, a light meter to measure melatonin levels, and an activity watch to record their movements. Researchers also collected urine samples throughout the trip for future analysis.
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Six Qantas frequent flyers who agreed to the study are also keeping activity/sleep diaries. As the hours ticked by on the flight, the university team used an iPad to test each passenger’s reaction time.
Flight 7879 left JFK at 9:30 p.m. Friday night after airport controllers put the flight to the front of the taxi line, radioing: “We want to wish you a congratulations on your inauguration history flight to Sydney.”
The airline believes people will pay a premium to fly direct from New York to Sydney without a stop in Los Angeles. But it also acknowledges that it needs to help passengers avoid jet lag, especially for those traveling in coach.
To do that, the crew insisted we were on Sydney time the moment we stepped on board. Sydney is 15 hours ahead of New York, so it was lunch time. The cabin lights were kept at full brightness for nearly eight hours. No dozing off to sleep on this flight!