Some people can sleep standing up, but for the rest of us, there are expert strategies to increase our chances of restfully snoozing in the skies.
Airlines have been promoting luxurious business and first classes that feature many tempting ways to drift off in the clouds for a few hours — but how can you get the best sleep on a plane, no matter where you're seated?
We asked aircraft seating and interiors designer, Adam White, director of Factorydesign, London, who has pondered the best way to ensure comfort in the cabin for the past 30 years. He frequently flies long-haul — and just as frequently flies in economy as in premium. He offered some practical tips to sleep better onboard, whether you're at the back, middle, or front of the plane.
“Clearly the more you are able to lie back, the better. So the further up the aircraft that you go the more comfortable you will be for sleeping,” he told Travel + Leisure. “In ergonomic studies, of the early days of lie-flat, there were sleep tests that showed you needed a genuinely flat bed to get the most rest.”
And for travelers who can't afford those lie-flat luxuries?
“There are other things we need to pay attention to, to get the best rest,” White said, “which can take you all the way back to economy class.”
Start with these three basic needs.
White highlights three key environmental factors which will affect the quality of your sleep, no matter what class you fly: light, noise and temperature. How you handle these three factors will help you sleep better on the plane, even if your seat doesn't recline.
“First get comfortable temperature-wise. That may mean standing up with your blanket and wrapping it around you and then put on your seat belt so that the crew can see that you’re strapped in,” he said. “That way the flight crew won’t find a need to wake you if the seatbelt light goes on.”
“Then, have the headphones plugged-in so the noise canceling function is working, but not necessarily tuned-in to something. These days, [in-flight entertainment will often have a sleep-based or soothing channel on the radio, so that’s something that could help to block out the drone of the jet.”
And finally, “reducing light is important, especially when people are often traveling different time zones,” White said. “You may have someone near or next to you who wants to turn on the lights; or worse still open a window and you get your eyes burned out by the sun.”
Define your pre-sleep ritual.
White has a ritual when he flies that helps ensure he'll get as much sleep as possible: “Three glasses of champagne in quick succession.”
He was kidding.
“Genuinely, what I do is that I wait, if I can, until the service is ready for me to go to sleep,” he said. “Unless it’s a late night flight, [during] the first hour or two of long-haul people will be eating and carts will be moving around. It’s almost impossible to sleep then.”
Things will quiet down, however, and you can use that to your advantage.
“When the aircraft service is ready to go to the quiet four or five hours in the middle, I like to be ready. I’ve got my blanket on so that my temperature is fine, I’ve had something to eat, and I’ve been to the loo,” he said.
“People will often be over alert about everything that is going on and worry, ‘How can I get the most of this seat that doesn’t lie flat, etc?’ They get tripped up about this, and are very wired because they don’t believe it's possible to sleep,” White said. “If you just obey the basic rules, get as comfortable as possible, with the blanket and earphones on white noise and your eye mask on, there’s no reason not to sleep.”
Choose your seat wisely.
Is there a knack to picking an Economy seat that will give you a better chance of sleeping? First of all, White says he always prefers being next to a wall (which would typically be the window seat).
“I wouldn’t spend the money or fight to get the exit row seat, or extra legroom, or any of that, because the truth is those are sort of headlines for a better flight, but economy is economy,” said White.
However, what he recommends is recognizing the environment that will be around the seat. Sit away from where people tend to congregate — like the lavatories — and get away from as many people as possible.
“It may sound funny, but just as people are left and right handed, I think they are also more comfortable leaning to a left or right hand side to sleep,” White said. “Know your body.”
Know your seat.
There is a lesser-known adjustment, available on many economy seats, which can improve your chances of getting a decent night's rest.
“One thing people often miss in economy class is that it has become much more standard to have headrests that are surprisingly clever,” said White. “You may look at it and think it’s a flat pillow, but if you experiment you’ll find that it not only goes up and down but that you can often bend the side ears around your head.”
“If you have something to cradle your head, that makes it a lot more comfortable.”
If your aircraft seat has a separate headrest cushion, there is a good chance that it is adjustable and articulating (bendable). The adjustable portion lets you move it up and down, and the articulating side panels can be folded in to give you somewhere better to rest your head than your neighbour's shoulder.
And if your seat isn't so accommodating, a trusty neck pillow will work wonders.
How seats are engineered to help you sleep.
The science of ensuring better sleep on planes never sleeps. Engineers and designers in the airline industry have spent decades studying rest.
“From the early days of lie-flat and reclining premium seating, there have been an awful lot of studies done," White said. “There have been technology improvements like inflating and deflating seat cushions, vibrating and massaging cushions, very sophisticated foams to try to make seats comfortable.”
Unfortunately economy passengers likely won't see the best results of this research.
“There’s no reason for that tech not to be employed, other than there is increasing effort to make economy seats as light as simple and as possible,” White said. “So it is, in a way, counterintuitive to put too much technology into the Economy seat.”
White's company, Factorydesign, has proposed an economy seat called the Twister, which — even though it wouldn't lie flat — would have a skeleton that allowed for passenger movement: “You twist in your seat,” he said. “If the seat had allowance for that twisting it would feel so much more comfortable.”
The problem so far has been that the Twister's skeleton is technically complex, which is not what airlines want for airplane seats today. As applications for 3D printing grow in aviation, manufacturers might want to have a second look at the Twister which could be made lighter and more affordable.