If you’re going to fly for nearly 20 hours through multiple time zones dressed in a pair of kangaroo-themed pajamas, jolting in and out of sleep in contravention of your normal circadian rhythm, you should take it easy on the medication. No one wants to go crazy in a metal tube 40,000 feet above the Pacific. On the other hand, suspecting that you have fallen into a rift in the space-time continuum itself is perhaps as reasonable a response as any to the longest (so far) commercial flight in the world.
So there I was last month, six or so hours into Qantas’s first-ever nonstop flight from New York City to Sydney. It was 3 a.m. New York time, which made it No O’clock in the tiny upscale refugee camp created by the airline. I had been suffering from congestion, the kind that migrates around your sinuses and then becomes an infection in your ear. While I was no longer contagious, there was some issue about the future of my ability to hear. The internet did not have good news. “Flying with an ear infection doesn’t always result in a ruptured eardrum,” one website said.
Basically, I had been taking decongestants since midafternoon. I felt like a junkie in a gritty TV show about Times Square in the 1970s, nervous and sweaty and incoherent even as I was beset by an achy, leaden inertia. Soon the lights would go down, part of the airline’s next planned group activity (sleeping) and I would make perhaps the gravest pharmaceutical error of my adult life. But that was still in the future.
Look, everybody wants to avoid a LAX stopover
Ever since there has been flight, there have been new frontiers in aviation. In 1927, Charles Lindbergh made the first solo flight across the Atlantic. In 1976, the Concorde showed that it is possible, though perhaps not advisable in the end, to whisk paying passengers around the world at twice the speed of sound. Long-haul flights, which used to be crucibles of noise and motion sickness, have become oases of calm and luxury, at least for those lucky enough to afford premium seats.
And now along comes Qantas, with its plan to offer direct, nonstop flights between Sydney and New York, flights that will take nearly 20 hours — longer even than the current longest-haul flight on the books, Singapore Airlines’s just-under-19-hours trip between Singapore and Newark.
For Qantas, the new route will shave some three hours off the regular New York-Sydney route and eliminate the need to change planes in the hellhole that is Los Angeles International Airport. That in itself is cause for celebration. In the words of Alan Joyce, Qantas’s chief executive: “Those who come through L.A. know how much of a pain it is.”
The airline hopes to offer the flights commercially in the next few years, but so far they are still in their experimental stages. The first of three research flights took off on Oct. 18, carrying 49 people in all — some Qantas employees, six frequent fliers and a gaggle of reporters. Our carbon would be offset, Qantas promised, and the flight would actually use less fuel than the flights that stop midroute. “This is a historic moment for Qantas, for Australian aviation, and for world aviation,” the chief pilot on the plane, Sean Golding, declared.
Sleep is for losers
I happen to love long trips. I love Australia. No one could be more excited than I am about the chance to sit for an extended stretch of time, Wi-Fi-less, in business class with access to dozens of movies and TV shows that you would never pay to watch at home. I am impervious to jet lag! Sleep is for losers. Still, the notion of a “research flight” was troubling from the perspective of participatory journalism. What if the result of the research was that the plane failed to reach its destination? I am not devoted to the future of air travel.
But the issue was not the plane — a brand-new Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner, fresh off the Seattle assembly line, still rocking that new-plane smell, with seats no one had ever sat in before — it was the passengers. How would such a ridiculously long flight affect our sleep, our moods, our digestion, and our hormone and melatonin levels? Researchers planned to use mental-acuity and physical data collected from the frequent fliers and the flight crew to help make life easier for travelers on future flights.
We also had a bracing talking-to from Prof. Marie Carroll, a cognitive psychologist who is director of educational development at the University of Sydney’s Charles Perkins Centre and served as the flight’s onboard jet lag consultant. Reset your watch to Sydney time as soon as you get on the plane! Avoid alcohol. Move about. Stay up as long as possible, and then do not mess around. Turn off your screens. Put in your earplugs; use your eye masks. No more TV! Go to sleep. It always works for her, she said. “I expect to be fully awake the whole day tomorrow,” she said.
Ha ha ha. (In my personal experience.)
Do not try this at home
Professor Carroll’s advice assumed a degree of baseline mental calmness. But preparing for an overseas flight is never easy. You cram a week’s worth of deadlines into two days; you stay up late packing; you obsess about every red light and every nuance of bad traffic en route to the airport. Even the most blameless traveler worries that she will get busted by the T.S.A. for random crimes against security. There’s a special kind of exhaustion that comes from hauling carry-on luggage through the anxiety-suffused corridors of an airport at night.
We had an unusually easy time at Kennedy International Airport, with our separate check-in desk and cordoned-off section of the departure lounge, but I already felt pretty ropy. By the time boarding began, at 8:30 p.m. or so, I had already taken three different prescription medications, plus an allergy tablet, plus a Sudafed. Right before takeoff I squirted a massive dose of Afrin up my nose. I might as well have shot amphetamines directly into my veins. My head felt like a beehive at honey-making time.
Most airlines feed the passengers immediately on overnight flights and then cut the lights, but the idea this time was to keep us up for more than six hours — until the middle of the night, New York time — by, among other things, feeding us spicy dinners that would serve as “a wake-up slap in the face,” Professor Carroll said. I had saffrony tomato soup and a lively-tasting sea bass, followed by caffeine-infused dark chocolate and tea.
Womp. The lights were also cranked up, as bright as interrogation lamps, part of the plan to trick our bodies into thinking they were already in Sydney, 14 hours ahead. I watched multiple episodes of “Barry,” about a hit man who joins a Los Angeles acting class led by Henry Winkler. The crew handed out pajamas with kangaroos on the front, instilling a pleasant sense of group infantilization, as if we were participants in an adult slumber party. From the seat in front of me, David Koch, co-presenter of the Australian morning show “Sunrise,” told me that it was important to understand the psychological ramifications of the sartorial transition.
“It’s a sleep cue,” he said, of the pajamas. “Don’t put them on until you are ready to go to sleep.” I said that I already felt jet-lagged, even though the monitor on my screen indicated that there were more than 16 hours to go. As an Australian, he replied, he prides himself on his travel-related stoicism, particularly since, to be honest, he always travels in business class.
“You know it will take you at least seven hours to get anywhere,” he said. “The feeling is, ‘Toughen up, princess, you’re at the front of the plane, so stop whining.’”
My brain would not shut up; my body wanted to crawl into a coffin and remain there forever. Some of the frequent fliers had glasses of wine, even though they weren’t supposed to, and then fell asleep. A few rows ahead, Mr. Joyce began watching “Fleabag,” which he had not seen before, and found the opening scene, in which Phoebe Waller-Bridge narrates her sexual encounter in medias res, unexpectedly racy. At one point, Professor Carroll led a group through a set of calisthenics in the back of the plane, encouraging us to use the oven handles as makeshift barres. We finished with an enthusiastic, if sloppy, mass performance of the “Macarena.”
Do not try this on a plane either
Back in my seat, I tried to do some work but could not focus. It was already something o’clock in Sydney, though it was 1 a.m. on the plane. Following Professor Carroll’s advice, I took two milligrams of melatonin as a body-clock-resetting measure. On my video monitor, George Clooney had unwisely boarded a creepy space station where, whenever he dozed off, he encountered either his dead wife or a malign specter conjured from the dark recesses of his imagination, it was hard to tell the difference. I could respect his dilemma. “How long can you go without sleep?” a character in the movie asked.
The crew handed out our second meal, a soporific mélange of sweet potato soup, sandwiches and a panna cotta trifle. The idea was to fill us with carbohydrates and milky foods to help us sleep. By now, it was something like 3 a.m. and all these things were clashing in my stomach. I thought with fondness of my bed at home.
After dinner, the mood rapidly downshifted. Whoosh, the lights went out. The effect was of being in a birdcage over which your owner has abruptly dropped a blackout cloth. Everyone lay down and (it seemed) fell asleep on the spot. Alone with my obsessions, I kept remembering “Lost in Translation,” the 2003 film in which a dazed and alienated Bill Murray wanders around Tokyo for days on end, wacked out from insomnia.
Against Professor Carroll’s judgment, I took an Ambien and then, when it did not seem to work, took another one. I do not know what happened next. Nor do I know what time it was when the lights surged back on, because I cannot read what I wrote in that particular section of my notebook. But we were much closer to Australia.
The passengers were in various states of bedragglement; the crew members, who had slept in shifts, looked fresh and perky. Breakfast came, an energizing egg-white omelet with balsamic herb potatoes, sautéed kale, spinach and mushrooms. I was so happy to have such a nice meal. I knocked back several lattes and a glass of “wake up juice.” Nutrition coursed through my body. Knowing that, when it comes to sinuses, landing is far worse than taking off, I took another decongestant, an allergy pill, an antibiotic and a couple more squirts of Afrin.
Across the aisle, Billy Foster, a cameraman for Sunrise, Mr. Koch’s program, said he normally wakes up for work at 3 a.m., but had been traveling so much that he had lost track of what day it was. He had already had four double shots of espresso. “I reckon I got two or three hours of sleep,” he said. “I feel like I’ve been hit by a train.”
On the other hand, David Speck, the onboard chef, was doing much better. He had followed his own nutritional program. “I had a big bowl of soup and thought, ‘I’ll just sit down and watch a movie,’” he said. “I started watching a Johnny Depp movie, what was it called? I lasted about five minutes. Five hours later, the guys took about five minutes to wake me up. It’s probably the best sleep I’ve ever had on a plane.”
In a fetal position, 10,000 miles from home
Qantas declared the flight a huge success. We had traveled 16,200 kilometers, or just about 10,000 miles, in 19 hours and 16 minutes, arriving with fuel to spare. We had beaten another, non-direct Qantas plane that left New York three hours before us. A crowd of airport employees was waiting to watch us glide in. “I feel great,” Mr. Golding said.
Back in our adult clothes, we were sent away with gifts of commemorative stuffed kookaburras. I was not doing so well, but most of the passengers seemed fine — better than you would expect after nearly a day in the air. Their conversation was coherent. They did not feel the need to immediately put on their sunglasses when we disembarked onto the tarmac.
And so let us be clear: What happened next was my own fault. I am aware that no one wants to hear how a person lucky enough to be an aviation pioneer traveling in the lap of luxury on a historic flight in a brand-new airplane to a continent halfway around the world at no personal financial cost can, in the end, barely make it out in one piece. No one wants to hear how I lost first my kookaburra, and then my breakfast. (Qantas rescued the kookaburra.)
We had been told that to combat jet lag when you arrive at your destination, you should go outside and walk around. Let that light sweep over you. So I did. Sydney is so beautiful. After dropping off my bags at my hotel, I staggered into the great Australian sunshine, past the majestic opera house and through the botanical gardens. I found a nice spot near some fetching white ibises, birds that I later learned are considered the “bin chickens” or “trash turkeys” of Australia.
Here’s one way of coping with acute Australian post-flight nausea. Lie down on the grass. Arrange yourself into a fetal position. Use your handbag as a pillow and, if you are worried about the concerned expressions of passers-by who suspect you are dead, cover your face with your hat. Remain there for several hours, moving as little as possible so as not disturb your stomach’s uneasy equilibrium.
Your body is right there next to one of the world’s most spectacular harbors, even if your mind has slipped into the Twilight Zone. You have traversed half the world in less than a day. You have left one place on Friday and successfully arrived in another place on Sunday. It is hard to comprehend that concept, how carelessly we skip over time and space, how casually we lose entire days. What happened to Saturday? Try as you might, you realize, you’ll never figure it out.
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