As we deep dive into this story of research, innovative design, and scientific discovery, we’ll take you behind the scenes of Qantas Airways’ Project Sunrise. This ambitious endeavor explores strategies to combat jet lag in collaboration with the University of Sydney’s Charles Perkins Center. Learn how this research is reshaping air travel and potentially making the skies healthier for frequent flyers.
Estimated reading time: 27 minutes
As a FlightChic deep-dive, this article is truly a long-haul read. For your convenience, I’ve added a table of contents so you can jump to whichever section appeals. You can definitely read the whole article in one go if you prefer.
Table of Contents
- Jump to Just the Facts
- Watch the videos about the ‘Project Sunrise’ research flights.
- Science Solves Jet Lag: Research Reduces Travel Fatigue
- Understanding Qantas’ Revolutionary Research on Long Haul Travel
- Project Sunrise: The Quest for the Ultimate Long-Haul Flight Experience
- A Final Frontier in Aviation
- From Lab to Sky: Less Jet Lag, Better Sleep, Clearer Thinking
- Qantas Airways’ Secret Weapons Against Jet Lag: Bright Light Exposure, Meals, and Movement
- The Role of Cabin Design in Reducing Jet Lag: Qantas’ Innovations
- The In-flight Experience: Design Strategies to Combat Jet Lag
- Singapore Airlines Ultra-Long-Haul Design Comparison
- FlightChic Take: Will the Qantas Research be Enough to Soothe Weary Passengers?
Science Solves Jet Lag: Research Reduces Travel Fatigue
Imagine stepping off your plane after a long-haul flight for a business trip, feeling as refreshed and energetic as if you’d simply flown to a nearby airport or not flown at all.
Recently, Qantas has made headlines for revealing the swanky Airbus A350-1000 long-haul cabins, but they also shared groundbreaking research into jet lag disorder. This intriguing research aims to redefine the future of air travel.
Let’s dive deep into the science behind the aircraft cabin design, which will make the record-setting longest flight less stressful.
What is Jet Lag, and How Does it Affect You?
Jet lag occurs when people travel across multiple time zones, disrupting their circadian rhythms. The speed of air travel allows people to cross more time zones in the span of a few hours than they could with any other form of transport. Flying across multiple time zones can even come close to time travel. When you cross the international date line traveling west, you can lose a day in local time. When you cross it traveling east, you can arrive before you depart in local time. The whole experience can leave you wondering what time really means.
While it might be fun to question the meaning of the little blocks into which we break up daily life and to defy the laws of physics (this is very much the point of air travel), traveling east or traveling west across great distances in relatively short intervals of time takes a toll on the body.
It creates an imbalance in the body’s internal clock, upsetting the circadian rhythms that regulate sleep-wake cycles and other bodily functions. Circadian rhythms are influenced by external cues such as light and darkness, and it takes time for the body to adjust to a new time zone. The more time zones you’ve crossed, the more intense your symptoms will be. You might experience sleep problems, fall asleep almost unwillingly, or be unable to sleep at all. Your brain can feel foggy, and you might feel generally sluggish.
What experts already know about jet lag:
Why jet lag is more than just feeling tired.
It’s not just about short-term sleep problems or upset stomach. Long-term exposure to jet lag can negatively affect the body in more serious ways. The circadian rhythm regulates sleep-wake cycles, hormone production, and other bodily functions. Disrupting this rhythm can lead to various health problems, including insomnia, fatigue, digestive issues, and mood disorders.
Research has also shown that frequent jet lag can increase the risk of developing more serious health conditions, such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and certain types of cancer. This is because disrupting the circadian rhythm can affect the body’s production of hormones that regulate metabolism, inflammation, and other important processes.
In addition to physical health, jet lag can have cognitive and emotional effects. Studies have shown that jet lag can impair cognitive performance, including memory, attention, and reaction time. It can also cause mood disturbances, such as irritability, anxiety, and depression.
Overall, the long-term effects of exposure to jet lag can be significant and should not be ignored. Frequent travelers need to take steps to minimize the impact of jet lag on their health and well-being, such as adjusting sleep schedules, staying hydrated, and following other healthy habits while traveling.
Jet Lag Symptoms worsen the farther you travel.
Jet lag disorder has long been a bane for travelers, affecting their well-being and productivity after flying long distances.
When people travel across multiple time zones, their circadian rhythm is disrupted, and their bodies may still be on the previous time zone’s schedule. This can lead to symptoms such as fatigue, insomnia, headaches, irritability, and digestive problems. The severity of jet lag depends on the number of time zones crossed, the direction of travel, and individual factors such as age and health. The more time zones crossed, the longer one might feel the jet lag effect. It can take one day to recover for each time zone crossed, and when crossing multiple time zones, as is the case flying halfway around the world, it becomes increasingly difficult for travelers to arrive at their destination ready to get down to business.
However, groundbreaking research conducted by Australian airline Qantas and the University of Sydney’s Charles Perkins Centre has revealed promising ways to reduce the impact of jet lag on business travelers and leisure travelers alike. By reshaping the travel experience through innovative measures, the airline aims to revolutionize international flying, making flyers more comfortable and rejuvenating.
The findings from these studies inspired the strategies implemented in aircraft interior design and passenger experience design intended to combat jet lag effectively and promote well-being.
Understanding Qantas’ Revolutionary Research on Long Haul Travel
The collaboration between Qantas and the University of Sydney’s Charles Perkins Centre began in 2015 with the goal of launching service from Perth to London. The research later expanded when the airline announced plans to connect Sydney directly with New York and London starting in late 2025. During the project’s test flights, researchers collected real-world passenger data, examining various aspects of the onboard experience to identify ways to mitigate jet lag.
The Project Sunrise Jet Lag Disorder Research Flights
The research program gathered data about passenger and crew health and wellbeing onboard during three repurposed Boeing 787-9 aircraft deliveries scheduled for October, November, and December 2019.
Instead of flying empty from Seattle to Australia, the Boeing aircraft simulated two Project Sunrise routes – London and New York to Sydney.
These research journeys represented the world’s first flight by a commercial airline direct from New York to Sydney and only the second time a commercial airline has flown directly from London to Sydney.
Each Boeing aircraft flew with a maximum of 40 people, including crew and flight attendants, to minimize weight and give the necessary fuel range. Carbon emissions were fully offset, in keeping with Qantas’ commitment to sustainability.
Australian researchers collected real-world passenger and crew data during the three Project Sunrise research flights from New York and London to Sydney in 2019.
Jetlag Research Findings
Researchers traveled on the Boeing aircraft and monitored 23 volunteer customers who were fitted with wearable device technology during the over 19-hour journey as they followed a specially designed menu, lighting, sleep and movement sequences.
Researchers found that, when compared to customers on a traditional onboard sequence of eating and sleeping, those on the tailored schedule experienced:
Less severe jet lag (self-reported)
Better sleep quality onboard
Better cognitive performance in the two days after their trip
The jet lag research trials involved tailored cabin lighting schedules to facilitate adaption to the destination time zone and integrate simple stretch and movement activities.
They also adjusted the timing of meal services to align the body clock and encouraged wake and sleep by using specific menu items, including fish and chicken paired with fast-acting carbohydrates, as well as comfort foods like soups and milk-based desserts. The aim was to promote the brain’s amino acid tryptophan (‘Tryp’) production to help travelers drift off more easily.
What is tryptophan, and how can it help combat jet lag?
Tryptophan is an essential amino acid in many foods, including turkey, chicken, fish, and dairy products. It is a precursor to serotonin, which regulates mood, appetite, and sleep.
Studies have shown that consuming tryptophan-rich foods or supplements can increase serotonin levels in the brain, which can help regulate sleep patterns and reduce the symptoms of jet lag. However, it is important to note that consuming tryptophan alone may not be enough to combat jet lag. Other factors, such as exposure to light and timing of meals and sleep, also significantly regulate the body’s circadian rhythms.
The Australian flag carrier incorporated these factors into the onboard experience design of Project Sunrise. They are focused on experience features such as special lighting and meal timing to help air travelers adjust to the new time zone and reduce the effects of jet lag.
Project Sunrise: The Quest for the Ultimate Long-Haul Flight Experience
Imagine being part of an epic airborne experiment, soaring high above the clouds for 19 straight hours. That was the reality for a select group of Qantas employees during the groundbreaking Project Sunrise research conducted by Sydney University’s Charles Perkins Centre, Monash University, and the CRC for Alertness, Safety, and Productivity.
Decked out in high-tech wearable devices, these airborne pioneers participated in carefully curated experiences throughout the ultra-long-haul flights. The watchful eyes of scientists and medical experts from the Charles Perkins Centre were on them every step of the way, scrutinizing everything from their sleep patterns and food intake to their physical activity and entertainment choices. The goal? To understand the impact of these factors on passenger health, well-being, and that all-important internal body clock.
Meanwhile, Monash University researchers embarked on a parallel mission: to delve into the pilots’ minds. Armed with EEG (electroencephalogram) devices to track brain wave patterns and monitor alertness, they recorded the crew’s melatonin levels before, during, and after the long flights themselves. Their quest was to gather valuable data to help craft the perfect balance of work and rest for pilots manning long-haul flights.
A Final Frontier in Aviation
The benefits for air travelers include minimizing jet lag and curating an environment conducive to rest and enjoyment. For the crew, it’s about leveraging scientific research to balance alertness during duty and maximize rest during downtime.
“We’re looking at a true final frontier in aviation: non-stop flights from Australia’s East Coast to London and New York. We’re committed to laying the groundwork to get this right,” Joyce promised. “The insights we gain will shape cabin design, inflight service, crew roster patterns, and even enhance our existing long-haul flights.”
Qantas had already begun gathering data on passenger sleep strategies on its direct Perth–London service. Initial findings were further evaluated during these dedicated research flights. Air travelers’ feedback on food choices, well-being zones, and entertainment options was also tested during the design process.
Crew wellbeing data was shared with the Civil Aviation Safety Authority to aid in shaping regulatory requirements for ultra-long-haul flights.
Watch the videos about the ‘Project Sunrise’ research flights:
From Lab to Sky: Less Jet Lag, Better Sleep, Clearer Thinking
Project Sunrise turned scientific insights into tangible airline design. It’s a testament of what can happen when science takes to the skies.
Reduced Jet lag: Air travelers following the tailored onboard schedule reported experiencing less severe jet lag than those on traditional eating and sleeping sequences.
Improved Sleep Quality: The tailored lighting and sleep schedules, combined with the specific menu choices, contributed to better sleep quality during the flight.
Enhanced Cognitive Performance: Air travelers exhibited improved cognitive performance in the two days following their trip, indicating that the strategies implemented during the test flights positively influenced post-flight well-being.
Peter Cistulli, Professor of Sleep Medicine at the University of Sydney, said while the research was ongoing, there were clear signs that the interventions implemented during the trials reduced the impact of crossing more time zones.
“The early results are promising, and it’s given us great momentum to look to the next stage of customer research to support Project Sunrise product and service design,” said Professor Cistulli. “We have a multidisciplinary team of more than ten researchers from medicine, science, and engineering backgrounds working together on this project. This includes sleep researchers, circadian experts, nutritionists, and movement experts. No airline has ever done this kind of research before. The early findings have given us optimism that we can make a real difference to the health and wellbeing of international travelers.”
Qantas Airways’ Secret Weapons Against Jet Lag: Bright Light Exposure, Meals, and Movement
Based on their scientific research, Qantas Airways has crafted strategies to help travelers adjust to new time zones and overcome jet lag.
Tailored Lighting and Sleep Schedules: The research found that light exposure can improve well-being. Implementing tailored cabin lighting schedules, with light exposure aligned with the destination time zone, helped travelers adapt more easily. This light exposure adjustment helps regulate the body’s internal clock, reducing the severity of jet lag symptoms.
Specially Designed Menus: Meal services were strategically timed to align with travelers’ body clocks, enhancing their sleep and wake cycles. Including specific ingredients like chili, chocolate, fish, and chicken, paired with fast-acting carbohydrates, encouraged the production of tryptophan, promoting better sleep quality during the flight.
Movement and Exercise: The importance of movement and exercise when traveling, especially when flying on long flights, cannot be overstated. The Wellness Zone onboard ensures that travelers have room for simple stretch and movement activities incorporated into the inflight routine. This allows passengers to remain active and reduce stiffness and discomfort.
The Role of Cabin Design in Reducing Jet Lag: Qantas’ Innovations
Qantas applied these research findings to enhance the customer experience on their upcoming Project Sunrise flights. The airline has implemented several design features and strategies to combat jet lag. One of the most significant changes is introducing a new cabin design with more passenger space and comfort.
The new design capitalizes on the Airbus A350-1000‘s best features, which include larger windows, improved air quality, and a lower cabin altitude to reduce the effects of jet lag. The cabin also has advanced lighting systems that simulate natural daylight and help passengers adjust to different time zones more easily.
By selecting a lower-density cabin layout, Qantas Airways reduces weight onboard, optimizing fuel burn and securing the ultra-long range needed to get from Sydney to New York.
New Qantas Airways Airbus A350-1000 Premium cabins
The specially designed Qantas Airbus A350-1000 will introduce a new first-class experience with a luxury suite that feels like a private apartment.
The business class seats are also enclosed suites where passengers can work, dine, enjoy entertainment onboard, and fall asleep with enhanced privacy.
New Qantas Airways Airbus A350-1000 Premium Economy and Economy cabins
Passengers in premium economy class benefit from a luxurious seat with ample legroom privacy enhancing headrests. Economy class passengers get more legroom.
But perhaps the best feature for Economy and Premium Economy class is the shared onboard Wellbeing Zone, allowing passengers to engage in stretch and exercise routines on aircraft, guided by video screens.
The new Qantas Airways onboard services for Project Sunrise flights were designed based on the scientific recommendations from the inflight research, providing passengers with personalized menu choices and optimal rest periods before and after the trip.
The In-flight Experience: Design Strategies to Combat Jet Lag
Qantas Group Chief Executive Officer Alan Joyce said the national carrier was excited by the prospect of minimizing jet lag and revolutionizing international flying for all travelers.
“Given our geography, Qantas has a long history of using imagination and innovation to overcome the tyranny of distance between Australia and the rest of the world,” said Joyce. “Now that we have the aircraft technology to do these flights, we want to make sure the customer experience evolves as well, and that’s why we’re doing this research and designing our cabins and service differently.
“Our A350s will have about 100 fewer seats than most of our competitors, which gives us room for more space in all classes, as well as a Wellbeing Zone for Premium Economy and Economy passengers to stretch. People can choose how they spend their time, but we’ll make recommendations based on science around menu choices and best times to eat or rest. That extends to before and after the flight to improve how people feel when they arrive on the other side of the world. Importantly, these direct flights actually cut total travel time by more than three hours compared to one-stop services.”
At the specially designed Wellbeing Zone on the Project Sunrise Airbus A350-1000 aircraft, passengers can get relieve the stress of prolonged periods sitting on an aircraft seat by stretching and doing simple exercises as guided by the video screens.
The Lighting Revolution: Specialized Lighting System for Sunrise and Sunset
Charles Perkins Centre and Qantas will participate in a first-ever combined lighting workshop at Airbus’ Hamburg headquarters later this year. Specialists will design the lighting settings for the aircraft, including reviewing the optimal brightness and color tone settings for each part of the flight.
The Global Impact of Qantas’ Project Sunrise: Reducing Jet Lag for Passengers Worldwide
With the launch of the first Project Sunrise Airbus A350-1000 scheduled for late 2025, the future of long-haul flights holds promise, where science and innovation will help travelers arrive at their destination feeling refreshed and revitalized.
Overall, Qantas has taken a comprehensive approach to combating jet lag on their Project Sunrise flights. By incorporating multiple design features, strategies, and wellness programs for longer flights. They are helping passengers arrive at their destination feeling refreshed and ready to enjoy their trip.
Qantas’ Project Sunrise has the potential to have a significant global impact on reducing jet lag for passengers. By conducting extensive research on the effects of long-haul flights on the human body and implementing design strategies to mitigate these effects, Qantas is setting a new standard for round-the-world air travel. Other carriers will surely be eager to match that standard.
The result of Qantas’ and Airbus’ research into lighting to help regulate passengers’ circadian rhythms will no doubt help improve cabin lighting design strategies in the airline industry as a whole.
Qantas’ design strategy of a roomier cabin layout—with more space and amenities for passengers at the back of the plane—will be trialed when flights launch in late 2025.
On first impression, this seems like a sound commercial strategy for ultra-long-haul routes, but will competitors like Singapore Airlines follow Qantas’ lead?
Singapore Airlines Ultra-Long-Haul Design Comparison
Singapore Airlines has made its own commitment to the A350, opting for the A350-900 on medium-haul and long-haul flights and A350-900ULR on ultra-long-haul routes.
The Singapore Airlines A350-900 medium-haul fleet consists of 303 seats. That includes:
- 40 Business class seats. The business class is designed in a 1-2-1 layout.
- 263 Economy class seats. The economy class is a 3-3-3 layout, providing a comfortable cabin environment.
The Singapore Airlines A350-900 long haul fleet has 253 seats, featuring 42 Business class seats in a 1-2-1 configuration, 24 Premium economy seats in a 2-4-2 configuration, and 187 Economy seats in a 3-3-3 configuration.
Singapore Airlines’ ultra-long-haul A350-900ULRs have 161 seats, with 67 Business class seats in a 1-2-1 configuration and 94 Premium economy seats in a 2-4-2 configuration. The airline’s decision to opt for fewer but higher revenue passengers was bolder than Qantas’ three-class approach. In this writer’s opinion, it made sense for the record-holding longest flight to New York. The Singapore Airlines Premium Economy seat makes for a more pleasant experience on the long ride there.
Never say never, but I don’t believe they will reconsider adding economy seating and sacrificing Premium economy seat places, at least not until they see how Qantas does in terms of load factor (percentage of seats sold) on their flights to New York. No doubt, they will be watching.
FlightChic Take: Will the Qantas Research be Enough to Soothe Weary Passengers?
Qantas’ passengers will benefit from the opening of convenient non-stop routes between remote destinations previously unheard of. They can fly in larger seats between Sydney, New York, and London. They’ll enjoy more legroom and a generally better cabin experience. Qantas ensures passengers can relax and get the rest they need. The airline provides a more comfortable cabin and spacious environment to combat jet lag.
I’d be somewhat skeptical about the jet lag benefits for those flying economy class. It’s still an exhaustingly long flight in only somewhat less cramped quarters. But I do believe the Wellness Zone might help with that. That is unless it becomes a crowded space for Economy passengers tired of sitting. (I have a sense that might become an issue.)
Having flown many long flights in Economy, Premium Economy, Business, and First, I’d pick Premium Economy for this flight. It’s worth the cost.
Overall, Qantas’ Project Sunrise represents a major step forward in the field of long-haul travel. No doubt, all airlines have noticed the Sunrise. They are waiting to see how far the flying kangaroo’s rays shine around the world.
Just the Facts
Qantas’ intuitive A350-1000s cabin of the future.
Will fly 238 passengers for up to 22 hours nonstop from Australia to almost any destination worldwide.
Work on Qantas’ new A350-1000s cabin began in 2019 and took tens of thousands of hours to create.
All seats in all four cabins will feature multiple fast USB-C charging ports
Seats in first class and business class will also have integrated wireless charging.
All passengers get fast and free WiFi and Bluetooth connectivity to connect their personal headsets to the inflight entertainment screen.
New Qantas A350 First-class suite features:
USB-A and C, AC and wireless charging outlets 2 Touchscreen suite controller
An enclosed suite with 57” (1.4m) high walls and a sliding door
Full-length wardrobe and multiple personal storage areas
32” entertainment touchscreen with Bluetooth audio connectivity (14” larger than our A380)
Flexible work, seating and dining space for two
80” (2m) long flat separate bed
Adjustable bed backrest for breakfast in bed
Customizable LED lighting
Separate 22” wide reclining armchair
50% more suite space compared to the A380 suites
Six large enclosed First Suites on the new Project Sunrise Airbus A350-1000.
New Qantas Business class cabins feature:
18” entertainment touchscreen with Bluetooth audio connectivity (2” larger than A380s and B787)
Cushioned leather ottoman that lifts for increased storage access
Sliding door into 42” wide suite with 47” high privacy wall
Architectural feature light
Personal storage compartment with mirror
USB-A and C, AC and wireless charging outlets 7 Additional cocktail and work surface
80” (2m) long and 25” wide flat bed (1” longer than A380 First flat bed)
Generous 25” wide seat with lumbar support (1” wider than our A380 Business seats)
Touchscreen suite controller
Separate upholstered glove box
52 Business Suites in the business-class cabin.
New Qantas Premium Economy cabins feature:
13.3” entertainment touchscreen with Bluetooth audio connectivity
Three dedicated amenity and personal storage pockets
Qantas’ most spacious seat pitch at 40”
Calf rest, which allows for full leg cradling
Two fast-charging USB-C outlets for every passenger
8” winged privacy headrest that adjusts for maximum comfort
40 Premium Economy seats in the Premium Economy cabin
New Qantas Economy seats feature:
spacious seat pitch at 33”
Six-way adjustable headrest
Multi-use seatback table
Two fast-charging USB-C outlets for every passenger
13.3” entertainment touchscreen with Bluetooth audio connectivity
Extra shelf for personal devices
140 economy class seats in a 3-3-3 configuration.
The Wellbeing Zone is located between the Premium Economy and Economy
Features sculpted wall panels and integrated stretch handles
Guided on-screen exercise program,
a hydration station and
a range of refreshments.
Direct flights from Sydney to New York and London are scheduled to start in late 2025
Project Sunrise Research Flights – Key Facts
Non-stop flights from New York and London to Sydney took around 20 hours each.
The data gathered from passengers and crew was used to inform all Sunrise flight planning, including from Brisbane and Melbourne.
Qantas pilots collected the aircraft from the production line at Boeing’s factory in Seattle and flew them to their starting points of New York (for two of the flights) and London (for one flight).
Cabins were fully fitted out and ready to enter normal commercial service.
The flights took place in October, November, and December of 2019, in line with scheduled aircraft deliveries from Boeing.
Flights had up to 40 people onboard (including crew) and a minimum of luggage and catering to extend the range of 787-9.
Other than the crew, those in the cabin were mostly Qantas employees taking part in testing. No seats were sold for the research flights.
Did You Know?
Qantas operates the world’s largest airline carbon offset scheme and used the program to offset all the carbon emissions from the three research flights.
Before the Project Sunrise test flight in 2019, no commercial airline had ever flown directly from New York to Australia.
Qantas has previously flown non-stop from London to Sydney in 1989. It was to mark the entry into service of the Boeing 747-400.
That flight had a total of 23 people on board and minimal internal fit-out to provide the range.
The aircraft, registered VH-OJA, was donated by Qantas in 2017 to the Historical Aircraft Restoration Society near Wollongong, New South Wales.