- Qantas is embarking on its non-stop flight from New York to Sydney this weekend, which will take nearly 20 hours.
- Alertness CRC Project Leader Dr Tracey Sletten, one of the researchers on the flight, explained the key factors they will be assessing pilots and crew members on, including sleepiness and alertness.
- Long haul flights have the potential to lead to health impacts such as mood swings and deep vein thrombosis.
How does a direct flight from Sydney to New York sound?
This weekend, Qantas is undertaking a non-stop flight from New York to Sydney for research purposes.
It will be in the air for 19 and a half hours and once completed, it will be the longest non-stop flight undertaken by a commercial airline.
It is one of three research flights the company is conducting, under the title "Project Sunrise", to see how the ultra long haul flights impact pilots and crew members. The flights will carry around 50 passengers and crew, with researchers from the Cooperative Research Centre for Alertness, Safety and Productivity (Alertness CRC) and Sydney University's Charles Perkins Centre studying the impacts.
Alertness CRC Project Leader Dr Tracey Sletten is one of the researchers who will be boarding the flight.
Sletten told Business Insider Australia that the Alertness CRC researchers will be looking at the amount of sleep the flight and cabin crew get leading up to the flight and how much sleep they're able to get on the flight.
They will also assess the pilots' alertness levels.
"We [will] ask them at different points throughout the flight, how they're feeling," she said. "And also we [will] do several assessments of their performance. They're doing some simple reaction time tests at different times that we know is very sensitive to sleep and sleep loss.
"And then we are doing some simulated operational tasks as well with a lot of videos inside the flight deck so we're able to observe how they're going throughout the flight."
But it's not just about how alert the pilots are, the researchers will be looking at fatigue, stress and comfort levels as well.
"We [are] also asking them about their workload and stress," Sletten continued. "We ask some simple questions around stress and pain, for example, and discomfort at different points. We ask them around the comfort of the sleeping facilities that they're in so through that process, we might pick up some general concerns around comfort and stress."
Four pilots will be involved in the study, taking turns to handle the flight. "They're all on the flight deck for takeoff and landing, but during the cruise phase of the flight, they actually form two pairs and they rotate their sleep throughout the flight."
The key is sleep
One of the biggest factors the researchers will be looking into is the impact on sleep.
Sletten said they will be looking at how long someone has been awake, how much sleep they've had and their biological timing – "what time it is according to their body clock compared to when they're awake".
"The interaction of the three of those we know has a huge impact on their alertness at different points," Sletten said. "And so with a longer flight – normally a longer period of duty – you might be at increased risks of sleepiness."
While Sletten said that they we would generally anticipate that the longer the flight, the more sleepy someone would get, that isn't necessarily the case.
"Just because a flight is longer doesn't mean they're going to be feeling more sleepy at the end of it," she said. Sletten mentioned other factors that could come into play such as the time of day in which they land.
And speaking of sleep, how does one plan on combating jetlag? According to Sletten, it's about trying to sleep in Australian time.
"One of the questions that we always ask when someone is taking a trip like this is how long they going to be in their location for. So, in the case of flying from from Australia to New York, for example, if a crew is only going to be away for two days before they turn around and return again, it's probably best that they try to actually stay on Australia time."
Sletten said trying to sleep as much as possible on the Australian time is "quite often very effective" in making someone more alert.
"So it may mean that they don't have as good a quality of sleep at night time but if they're able to supplement that with a nap during the day that is timed to be aligned with the Australian night time, they can actually help to supplement their sleep," she said.
The impact of long haul flights
Chrystal Zhang, Associate Professor Aviation, School of Engineering at RMIT University highlighted how commercial flights have evolved over the last century and how people's awareness of wellbeing in relation to flying has increased.
Zhang, who has worked for the Civil Aviation Administration of China, aviation consultancy firms and has expertise in air travellers' behaviour, mentioned the possible impact of being in a constrained space for long period of time -- such as a flight -- could have an impact on your mindset or your mood.
According to the BBC, an emerging body of research suggests that flying 10km above the ground inside a plane can alter our mood.
And long haul flights could even lead to greater risks of deep vein thrombosis (DVT), the ABC reported, where a blood clot forms in the veins of a leg and can cause swelling and inflammation. In the report, Monash University Professor Karlheinz Peter highlighted that flights longer than 12 hours can particularly heighten the risk of DVT and many people don't realise how often it happens.
"It's quite scary numbers," he said. "If you look at asymptomatic deep vein thrombosis [where there are no obvious signs], there are studies showing it occurs in up to 10 per cent of long-haul flights."
Zhang further mentioned the health impacts for certain passengers on flights.
"A lot of research has been undertaken in terms of the how the flight itself – whether it's long haul or ultra long haul or even sometimes short haul or medium haul – have effect on the travellers, because we know that not everyone is physically fit. Especially for those vulnerable travellers, they might have problems with their blood circulation, they might experience hearing problems and heart attacks. So physically, for some travellers, it's quite challenging."
The non-stop flight will reach Sydney on Sunday October 18. Let's hope everyone on board gets a chance to have a nice long sleep afterward.