Arnie Weissmann
Arnie Weissmann

Is sleep the new black?

That's what a frequent flyer told United Airlines researchers who were planning to reshape the carrier's premium class to better meet the needs of business travelers.

United CEO Oscar Munoz told the media two months ago that passengers' desire to arrive feeling well-rested "over-indexed" all other considerations. They felt that "a good night's sleep" was more important, by a factor of two-and-a-half, than anything else.

This "magnitude of the exponential differential" led United's teams to "design a project where sleep is the center of it," the CEO continued. The result: Polaris, a lounge-to-landing approach aimed at increasing passenger satisfaction and loyalty.

Polaris, he said, "will make the weary traveler a relic of the past."

In a Polaris cabin, passengers will find pillows, blankets, duvets and a breathable, 6-foot-6-inch mattress designed by Saks Fifth Avenue on their lie-flat bed. In the amenity kit will be "spa quality" goodies including Cowshed brand lavender pillow spray. Weary heads will rest on cooling-gel memory foam pillows. On some flights, cotton pajamas will be offered.

Some United lounges will be reconfigured as Polaris lounges; preflight meals will be offered so passengers can doze rather than be interrupted by in-flight meal service.

Will all this help passengers arrive feeling better rested? Perhaps. But a data-cruncher I know described a trap that researchers often fall into: They hit the median but miss the target. In other words, they plot the most common response, and if, as Munoz notes, it "over-indexes," they feel they have their marching orders.

But as a frequent long-haul traveler who goes east-west more than north-south, I find sleep is just the subtext.

The problem is jet lag.

And it's a complex problem. There are as many variations on jet lag as there are city pairs plus arrival and departure times. I asked United executives, including those involved in developing Polaris, whether jet lag was taken into consideration. The answer was that, to their knowledge, it was not.

There's a fair amount of research on jet lag and strong indications that the syndrome can be minimized through controlled exposure to light and darkness, the timing of exercise and a body's melatonin levels, according to a 2013 article in Scientific American titled "How to Prevent Jet Lag."

The body regulates melatonin levels in accordance with circadian rhythms (our 24-hour wake/sleep cycle), but the jury is still out on whether taking melatonin pills is safe or effective. (As I once discovered at 3 a.m. in a London hotel, I am one of the few individuals who experience the side effect of hallucinatory nightmares after taking melatonin. Once was enough for me.)

There are obvious spatial limitations to the amount of exercise one can get once onboard, which leaves light as the jet-lag-abatement factor most within the control of an individual and an airline. The good news is that research suggests that light is the most important of the three factors.

Or, actually, the sort-of good news. To truly help passengers arrive feeling well-rested as they put their seats in the upright position and reset their watches upon landing, carriers would have to adjust the onboard experience in ways that aren't as psychologically comforting as lavender pillow spray.

I've long been aware of the importance of light and what to do to prepare to "phase shift" (the term for adjusting to new time zones), but I've been frustrated during flight by both airline service patterns and expected passenger etiquette.

Meal service is planned for periods when I should be sleeping in the dark. And should I want to raise my window shade to be exposed to natural light in accordance with the destination's daylight hours, I would feel the wrath of fellow passengers wanting to sleep or watch movies.

In this age of ancillary fees I, for one, would pay extra to be in an anti-jet-lag cabin that promises to adjust lights and feed me on a schedule that would help me phase shift to my destination's time zone.

I doubt that United, having spent tens of millions to reconfigure Polaris, is going to make further cabin adjustments to counter jet lag, but if, in fact, sleep and feeling well-rested are over-indexing passenger desires, I do feel there could be some efforts to educate passengers about jet-lag prevention.

For example, prior to the 24-hour email reminder to check in for a flight, there could be a 72-hour advance advisory on what passengers traveling on long-haul east-west routes could begin doing to minimize the impact of jet lag.

There could be links to one of the online jet-lag calculators that take into account time zone differences and help travelers determine which hours they should be exposing themselves to light in the days preceding arrival.

In fact, there's one such calculator on the British Airways website.

I applaud BA for putting up the calculator. The only problem is that, for now, if you're flying that carrier long haul, you won't be able to follow their advice if it requires you to open your window shade when everyone else wants it closed.

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