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Keith Alexander

Frequent Fliers, Dreaming of Adequate Sleep

By Keith L. Alexander
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 12, 2005; Page E01

When frequent flier Marie A. Sherrett of Upper Marlboro heads for the airport, she carries a secret weapon to help her battle fatigue on the road: her bedroom pillow. Sherrett, a legal secretary and frequent lecturer on autism, knows how air travel and hotel life wrecks her needed slumber.

"I don't like the hotel pillows, and this way I'm guaranteed a better night of sleep," she said.

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The stress of flying and sleeping away from home tends to leave business travelers in a constant battle against fatigue. Just how droopy is measured in a recent study on the snoozing habits of the frequent flier. Instead of catching the recommended seven to nine hours of sleep each night, business travelers log an average 6.4 hours, according to the study sponsored by British Airways and Research International.

Worst affected are government workers, who said they generally sleep 6.2 hours a night. Lawyers and others in the legal profession were next, at 6.25 hours, followed by computer and software workers, at 6.3 hours. Frequent-flying consultants slept the most of those polled, at 6.7 hours a night.

Government workers had the worst sleeping patterns because they are under tighter travel restrictions from budget restraints than other workers, said Darrel Drobnich, senior director of government and transportation affairs for the National Sleep Foundation. Drobnich, who regularly speaks to local and federal government agencies on ways to reduce fatigue, said government workers often took shorter trips but had to crunch in more tasks by working longer hours.

Long overnight flights -- often a discomfort for the business traveler -- can disrupt sleep patterns over the longer term. The study found that some frequent travelers on overnight trips in coach get only about three hours of sleep; those in first or business class don't do much better, claiming about four hours a night.

Drobnich suggested that airline passengers who have difficulty sleeping should wear headphones and play soft music or use noise-reducing headphones. He also advised wearing eye masks to darken the cabin; the masks also are good for sleeping in hotel rooms. On international flights, it is a good idea to build in an extra day to catch up on sleep, Drobnich said. He added that it may help to start adjusting your sleep to your destination time zone a week ahead of your departure.

Over-the-counter sleep medications also can help, Drobnich said.

For the study, researchers interviewed 1,000 business travelers nationwide who took at least two business trips a year. Most surveyed, however, said they took at least three international and 11 domestic overnight trips during the past year.

The study was released in part to promote British Airways' flat-bed seats that allow passengers in its business-class section to recline during long trips. It found that 25 percent of frequent fliers admitted to falling asleep in meetings because of sleep deprivation, and 70 percent said they felt they were less productive after traveling.

Fatigue can have far worse consequences than embarrassment in meetings. The National Sleep Foundation ranks business travelers just behind teenagers in the likelihood of being involved in car accidents. Drobnich attributes the ranking to frequent fliers getting on the road in their rental cars on too little sleep.

Frequent traveler Chet Pryor, a Montgomery College English professor, turns to over-the-counter medications to keep him alert. On long business trips, he takes an alertness aid whenever he gets behind the wheel of a car. "When I'm traveling and have long drives, I get groggy and I don't trust my ability to drive. It's a precaution."

The study suggests several ways frequent fliers can reduce their sleep deprivation, including taking a shower upon arrival, drinking water during a flight, taking a walk outside after arriving and, of course, taking naps.

Some frequent business travelers have discovered their own sleep aids. For five years, U.S. government contractor Mike Connor has relied on a popular sleep drug. Connor, who moved to Kiev, Ukraine, in September, said that before taking the drug he regularly got only about four hours of sleep. Now, he said, he gets six to eight hours a night.


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