Travelers rely on airline pilots to be alert while they are flying, for obvious reasons. But because pilots spend their days (and nights) flying across all kinds of time zones, managing jet lag is practically a job requirement. “You have to train for it,” R.J. “Dutch” Deutschendorf, System Chief Pilot at Southwest Airlines, shared with T+L.
Pilots simply don’t have the luxury of sleeping off jet lag-induced exhaustion, so learning to handle it is much more than just a 9-to-5 obligation—it’s a lifestyle. “Pilots have to know how to deal with fatigue, which is why at Southwest we incorporate in our training things that pilots can do about jet lag,” said Deutschendorf.
Deutschendorf was willing to pass along some of the tips he’s learned in his years as a pilot and offer tips to civilians who are making their way across the friendly skies.
“Being hydrated is one of the best things you can do for anyone who travels,” Deutschendorf says. “The number one beverage is water. Soft drinks, sugary juices, or diet sodas will not do nearly as well of a job, so we recommend crews drink as much water as possible, first and foremost.”
Limit caffeine intake.
Many travelers rely on coffee as a bridge to cope with jet lag, but Southwest recommends that pilots keep their coffee fixes to a minimum. “We try to limit the amount of caffeine—or recommended caffeine—that a crew member takes in,” said Deutschendorf. “When you’re a pilot and you do get fatigued, that half a cup of coffee will affect you more. It will keep you more alert, as opposed to somebody who drinks coffee all day long and becomes immune to it.”
In short, they recommend that pilots save the caffeine boost for when they really need it. “Don’t overuse caffeine, but use it as necessary to stay alert,” explained Deutschendorf.
Watch your diet.
The benefits of eating wholesome foods have been well documented, but Deutschendorf believes that a healthy diet can also help alleviate jet lag and exhaustion. “We recommend eating a well-balanced diet,” he said. “Keep the sugar to a minimum so you don’t experience highs and the crashes afterwards. Eat protein, fruit, vegetables, and some carbs—but not too many because you don’t want that crash.”
Get consistent rest.
Deutschendorf admits that getting to bed at the same time each night can be hard for crew members who fly into a new time zone each night. Despite the constantly changing clock, he thinks it’s important to try and get a good night’s rest, regardless of jet lag. “You have to make adjustments and allowances,” said Deutschendorf. “It depends on your body clock.”
On U.S. domestic flights, flight crews are not allowed to nap on the flight deck, according to Deutschendorf, which is why it’s so important that pilots get a good night’s sleep before getting on the plane.
Go easy on alcohol.
Pilots aren’t drinking in the cockpit, but Deutschendorf recommends passengers go easy on the in-flight cocktails, too—especially on long haul flights. “The effects of the alcohol are about double what they would be at sea level,” said Deutschendorf. “Passengers should be aware of that. It’s going to make you more fatigued and disrupt your rest cycles.”
Sleep on the plane.
Don’t be surprised if you feel fatigued on a plane ride, because the air has less oxygen in it than you might be used to, according to Deutschendorf. “When you’re flying at 35 or 39 thousand feet, the amount of oxygen in the cabin is far less than it is down at sea level,” he says. “You’re naturally going to get fatigued.” While pilots need to stay awake and alert, Deutschendorf says, “travelers can just close their eyes and rest.” Plus, sleeping on the plane means arriving at your destination with fresh eyes, which is always a plus.