Image: Sleeping passengers
Zbynek Stanislav  /  AP
Dressing comfortably is important when taking a long-haul flight, but columnist James Wysons suggests delaying a nap for as long as possible.
By James Wysong Travel columnist
updated 12/5/2006 12:30:24 PM ET 2006-12-05T17:30:24

Sure, you’ve been on short flights, medium flights, and maybe even some pretty long flights — say, eight or 10 hours. But have you ever taken a super long-haul flight, spending 12 or 16 hours in the air? I recently did. In fact, I jumped at the chance to fly direct from New York to Tokyo.

I didn’t give the 15-hour flight time much thought. That is, not until the day of departure, when I did the math. Fifteen hours? That is equivalent to 900 minutes, 9 movies, six football games and two well-rested nights of sleep in a row. Maybe I was being unduly pessimistic, but any way I looked at it, it spelled l-o-n-g.

Can an airplane fly that long without a fuel stop? Could favorable winds speed up the flight? Would I go stir-crazy? All very good questions. I would soon find out the answers.

The plane was tugged out to the runway in order not to waste any precious fuel. The age and demeanor of the flight crew seemed different from what you get on a one-hour flight. The flight attendants were more senior, quite a bit less perky, and they looked to be pacing themselves for the journey ahead. On take-off, the airplane, weighted down with passengers, cargo and fuel, struggled to get airborne.

I had dinner, a drink, a movie and a short nap. When I awoke, I figured the flight had to be at least half over. Piece of cake, I chuckled to myself. Then I looked at the air map and read the fatal line: “Time Left Until Arrival: 12.06 hours.” I slouched back in my seat and tried to regroup.

This was going to be tougher than I thought. I penned idle thoughts to pass the time. Here are some of them.

You know you’ve been on an airplane too long when:

  • Your rear end is numb and has taken on the shape of the seat cushion.
  • The flight attendants start looking like prison guards.
  • The airline food starts tasting great.
  • You understand the cockpit announcements perfectly.
  • You forget where you’re going and no longer care.
  • You start looking for the parachutes.

During the flight I also wrote this column, hoping to turn my misery into some advice others could use. Here are some tips for the long haul.

1. Make yourself comfortable.
If you can use your mileage points for an upgrade, this is definitely the time to do it. Similarly, if the airline has a section in the economy section with roomier seats at a nominal price, pay it. Fifteen hours is a long time to play the cheapskate.

2. Don’t be a clock watcher
If you can refrain from constantly looking at the air map and the “Time Until Arrival” page, you will save your sanity.

3. Delay the z’s
Watch the movie, have a drink, eat a meal, read a book, do something to keep you awake as long as possible. When you finally do get some sleep, it will be heavier and longer, and when you awake, you should have the better part of the flight behind you.

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4. Turn a deaf ear
I have said it before and will keep on saying it: Bring your earplugs. Tuning out announcements, babies, excessive talkers and especially the hefty snorers is critical for deep sleep.

5. Circulate
Get up, stretch and walk around as often as you can. Deep vein thrombosis — the formation of blood clots in deep veins of the lower legs — can be a serious risk on these flights.

6. Keep busy
Bring books, puzzles, gadgets — anything to occupy your time. If you are bringing a laptop, be sure to bring an extra battery, especially if you plan to watch DVDs.

7. Get a window on the world
Unless you have a bladder problem, the best place to sit is at a window seat. You won’t have to worry about your seat mates waking you every time they have to use the lavatory, and you can use the window for a head rest. Get to the airport early and request a window seat at check-in.

8. Go back
If you get hungry during the flight, head to the back of the airplane. Many times the flight attendants have set up a snack cart in the galley for people who get hungry or just want to graze.

9. Dress down
It is not unusual for passengers on long-haul flights to change into pajamas. In fact, I spied two first class passengers handing their pants to the flight attendants to hang up. But anything comfortable will do, so long as it won’t wrinkle into a ball in the course of the flight. But be sure to wear your lace-up shoes, not slippers. Your feet tend to swell on long flights, and they may not fit back into your shoes at the end of the flight. This has happened to me three times.

10. Feed the bear
A long flight is no time to start a diet. Sometimes a candy bar or two can take the edge off and keep you from becoming a grumbling mess. Similarly, if you are a smoker, bring nicotine gum, as this is not the occasion to try to go cold turkey.

Currently, the longest scheduled commercial flight is from Los Angeles to Singapore, flown by Singapore Airlines. The flight time is a mind-boggling 18-and-a-half hours, but if I had to choose an airline to be stuck on for that long, it would definitely be Singapore Airlines.

I arrived exhausted but was happy to breathe outdoor air once again, even if it was mingled with jet fumes. But then I confronted one of the great mysteries of life: Why is it that after sitting for 15 hours, you just want to sit down again?

I have certainly developed new respect for the flight crews and businessmen who tackle these flights on a routine basis. I hope when you find yourself on such a flight, you can use some of these tips. Just keep telling yourself: What goes up, must eventually come down.

James Wysong has worked as a flight attendant with two major international carriers during the past fifteen years. He is the author of the "The Plane Truth: Shift Happens at 35,000 Feet" and "The Air Traveler's Survival Guide." For more information about James or his books, please visit his Web site or e-mail him.

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