Experts Offer Ideas on How to Get Sleep on the Plane

By Andrea Sachs
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 23, 2009

The image is so familiar that you can see it in your dreams, if you were capable of dreaming: an airplane full of passengers in fitful sleep, their cheeks pressed against the windows, heads bobbing like yo-yos on limp strings and eyes masquerading behind black masks. Syncopated snorts fill the air, and bodies toss and turn as if in a storm. Will the sandman ever come?

There's no glossing over it: Sleeping on planes is challenging for those who aren't first-class passengers, narcoleptics or pint-size. The reasons are manifold. The seats are constraining, and you can't make them fully horizontal, which our weary bodies crave. There is no neck support and little room to stretch your limbs and change position. The lights and the noise are intrusive, as are the activities of your seatmates. The air is dry, and the blankets contain no-thread counts. Seat pitch, the distance between a point on one seat and the same point on the seat in front of it, has shrunk over the years, and planes are fuller than ever, due to reduced capacity. The only thing missing -- for now -- is loud cellphone talkers.

Seeking wisdom on how to sleep on a plane, we contacted an array of experts who specialize in sleep disorders, ergonomics, physiology, pillows and more. The ultimate lesson is that there's no perfect strategy (except upgrading), because passengers come in all different sizes and sleeping patterns. Still, their tips -- one or all -- could make the difference between pulling an all-nighter and catching a few winks above the clouds.

The Airline Industry Representative

David A. Castelveter, spokesman for the Air Transport Association of America, starts with the seat itself: Know your good ones from your awful ones. Avoid seats that don't recline, he says, such as the back row of the plane and some exit-row seats. To find the optimum chaise, study or SeatExpert, which provide seating charts of the plane. If it's any consolation, Castelveter says that long-haul planes are more attentive to travelers' repose than quick-hop carriers, as sleep is more crucial when flying internationally. "They invest more in passengers' comfort," he said.

Finally, don't be a vampire: "Snooze before the sun is up."

The Airline Consultant

Richard Aboulafia, vice president of analysis at the Teal Group, gets greedy: He scopes out the plane for an unoccupied row on which he can stretch out like a cat. "Any kind of empty seating is a great strategy," he said. When checking in at an airport kiosk, click on the diagram of the seating arrangement and, if there's an open row, change your seat. If none is available, don't lose hope; there could be some no-shows.

If you're stuck in a full row, switch to Plan B: "Block out the outside world." This involves donning a padded eye mask and sticking in earplugs or a noise-canceling headset. "Try to imagine yourself with as much privacy as possible," Aboulafia said.

The Frequent Flier

Tim Winship, publisher of, is in favor of reclining -- but without offending. "If the passenger in front of you reclines fully," he said by e-mail, "you definitely want the option to recline your seat as well, to maintain a comfortable distance between yourself and the seat back."

He is also a fan of the window seat, and not for the view. "For sleeping, the window seat is generally best," he wrote. "You can nestle into the space between the seat and the cabin wall, alleviating somewhat the claustrophobia of coach class."

The Travel Adventurer

A former CNN travel correspondent who is now a writer and consultant, Chris McGinnis has logged nearly a million miles. His preferred seat is in the center of the plane (even better if it's in the exit row), away from the traffic of the galley, the lavatories and the cockpit. "It's the quietest and smoothest ride," he said. He also prefers noise-canceling headsets to ear buds, which don't fully mute the chatter. For his eyes, his shade of choice is the puffy Bucky mask: "It's like a pillow over your eyes. In the black fabric, it blocks out everything, and it's stylish."

The Physical Therapist

Airline seats aren't just uncomfortable, they're unhealthy, says Eileen Vollowitz, a physical therapist who specializes in ergonomics and orthopedics and has assisted on airplane seat design. When you're seated, she explains, there's less room for your lungs to expand, so your breathing becomes restricted. (That is why you rarely see an opera singer perform while seated on a couch.) Respiration becomes even more labored if your head lolls while asleep. "You don't want your head to flop," she said. "This can crush the neck joints or obstruct airways." The head falling sideways or downward can also impede swallowing and breathing.

To open up your airways, Vollowitz recommends fashioning a pillow or other cushion around your shoulders. The accessory acts as scaffolding for your neck, propping up the 15- to 20-pound dead weight called your head.

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