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Beyond Flat Beds: 5 Ways Aircraft Interiors Affect Your Onboard Sleep

April 01, 2019
5 min read
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It may be the first thing you picture when thinking about a long-haul flight in a premium cabin: Sleep. Actual sleep on a flat bed, cozy in your seat, or maybe even in a suite with a closing door, if you've played your points and miles right.

It may even be more important than the fancy food or the inflight entertainment when choosing to spend more for flying up front. That's why airlines are willing to spend serious money to research how to improve sleep on airplanes. And every year at the Passenger Experience Conference, the industry comes together to discuss what's ahead for the onboard product.

TPG was in attendance, and the answers may surprise you.

A Sense of Home

Grit Peschke, Product Manager Onboard Comfort for Spiriant, a division of LSG — part of the Lufthansa Group — says airlines should be trying to recreate a sense of familiarity when passengers try to sleep on a plane. She explains that everyone needs to feel safe and secure in their bedding, so passenger should be able to snuggle into something comfortable and familiar.

This is achieved with soft, comfortable fabrics and a cabin environment that feels as secure and quiet as possible.

The fabrics should also be washable, just like your materials at home.

Lufthansa First Class (Photo by Zach Honig / The Points Guy)

Sliding Doors Present Unique Problems

Arguably the hottest trend in business class right now are sliding doors, turning otherwise standard business class seats into private suites. Qatar, Delta and British Airways all have announced this feature in their latest business-class products.

While these provide incredible privacy they are not actually optimal for sleeping.

Seat designer John Tighe, Design Director, Transport at JPA Design, has conducted numerous tests on the the optimal sleeping positions for flat beds and noted that high-walled seats presented problems for decent sleep. When a passenger's body is resting against the high walls of a business class suite, they will naturally feel anxious having a foreign surface leaning against their body as this is an unnatural sleeping sensation.

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Doors will usually also take away some real estate from the overall seat design, leaving even less space to sleep in.

Delta One Suite on Delta's refurbished Boeing 777 (Photo by Nick Ellis / The Points Guy)

Space Around The Knees

Most business-class seats have the foot space in a small cubbyhole that forms part of the seat in front. Some passengers find it difficult to sleep because the movement of their feet is restricted. Footwell space is a common complaint about some business-class seats.

But knee space is important too. JPA Design says tests have shown that knee movement is just as important as foot room, especially for passengers who sleep on their side. An extra inch of width in the knee area can be even more important than the length of the seat, JPA says.

The pitch, or legroom, of the seat is otherwise usually more widely publicized and valued than the width in the knees. And, of course, it's difficult to design a seat that will suit every passenger, because each will sleep in a slightly different position.

Qatar Airways Qsuites (Photo by Emily McNutt / The Points Guy)

Melatonin Production

PJ Wilcynski, Payloads Chief Architect for Boeing, says that airlines have been trying too hard to produce melatonin through advanced cabin lighting during flights in order to aid passenger sleep. Some passengers take melatonin orally as a sleep aid, too.

Wilcynski says Boeing has looked to natural sunsets and sunrises as the greatest inspiration for sleep environments onboard. Airlines that use mood lighting to most accurately recreate these experiences inside a cabin, regardless of the time zone, get his praise.

He says the difficulty in doing this is even with today's cabin lighting technology, there isn't enough time to produce sufficient melatonin in the cabin while, say, you are eating your dinner on a seven-hour flight before drifting off to sleep, which is typical for a flight from New York to Europe.

So these aircraft produce as much melatonin as possible to at least trick the passengers' brain into thinking they are receiving a good dose of it to send them off into a deep sleep.

Virgin Atlantic Premium Economy (Photo by Ben Smithson / The Points Guy

Neck Support

Some pillows provided inflight, even in premium cabins, are small and limp.

Sipriant insists that neck support is a critical part of proper sleep, and a lack of it will lead to a restless sleep, no matter how good to rest of the seat is.

How to Improve the Quality of Your Next Inflight Sleep

According to the experts, there are ways you can improve the sleep experience on your next flight, regardless of seat, class or airline.

Unfortunately, they are not the most exciting ways to enjoy a flight, particularly in premium classes. But here they are:

  • Avoid blue light wherever you can. Mood lighting onboard shouldn't feature this on night flights.
  • Don't drink alcohol
  • Avoid heavy meals
  • Ask the crew to lower the cabin temperature if it is too warm to sleep in.
Featured image by Virgin Atlantic