Lady traveling napping on a plain.

Giving passengers more PaxEx control could improve their sleep

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Students at the Delft University of Technology (TU Delft) are continuing their work to explore all facets of the passenger experience and examine the various design and environmental factors that influence comfort on board. A recently published study on inflight sleep suggests that the seat is an important factor in comfort but not the sole determining factor of whether a passenger can sleep well.

As a result of a combination of passenger-driven and airline service factors, some passengers may only be able to doze briefly, and are getting little rest during these brief periods.

The study consisted of an online survey of travelers and a separate co-creation session which recreated the various phases of flight. Among 109 survey participants who have had long-haul flight experiences, only 7.3% said they were able to sleep well during the cruise phase of flight; 65% reported being in a constant state between sleep and wakefulness; and 15% reported being awake for the whole flight.

“If participants are repeatedly awakened and have to tolerate the half-asleep state several times, negative emotions including feeling frustrated, bored and desperate could become dominant,” the study found.

The three most common reasons reported for fitful sleep were: being awakened by crew with inflight broadcast announcements and catering service (35%); followed by environmental factors such as temperature, light and noise (26%); and other personal conditions including physical and mental discomfort (20%). Only around 10% reported not being able to lay down as a contributing factor to fitful sleep.

An important contributing factor to better rest may be agency – giving passengers greater control over their experience.

“One of the most interesting things we learned was that people who flew more prepared themselves better,” said Professor Peter Vink, who is Head of Design Engineering Department at TU Delft. “That means that they had a neck pillow, something to cover their eyes – they planned their flight better. They know, for instance, to tell the flight attendant that they don’t want to be disturbed, that they want to sleep, and they look for seats where they sit next to the window so nobody passes by them.”

The study showed that 72.5% of passengers surveyed bring their own entertainment equipment on board; 67.9% bring a sleeping kit (e.g. slippers, sleep mask, ear plugs); and 46.8% bring their own food or drinks.

Professor Vink explained that this is not just about passengers being prepared, but that having some level of control over their experience can directly contribute to passengers’ ability to rest. He stated:

Being in control is very important. What we also found out is that if people have influence on the timing of their meal they feel much more happy and are in control, and can also sleep better.

TU Delft is working on a separate study on alternative food service. It is considering options like pre-programmed delivery times for inflight meals, perhaps delivered via automated-trolleys, or to opt-out of the meal service through an IFE or app interface.

It is also considering the feasibility of introducing drink dispensing bars on board.

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Airlines can enhance the level of comfort on board by redesigning the travel experience to allow passengers to manage their environment. In addition to offering more meal service options, other changes could include cutting back on inflight announcements by posting non-critical flight updates through IFE portals and flight maps.

Airlines could also give economy class passengers amenities that allow them to better manage their environment, with eye masks to block out light, earplugs and noise-cancelling headphones – amenities usually offered in business class. And they could encourage less experienced passengers to prepare for more restful flights by sending travel tips in advance of their journey, with recommendations for items that passengers may want to pack to ensure their comfort.

Being informed of what they can expect to find on board, and the service options available to them during the flight can give passengers greater agency over their passenger experience, helping them to sleep easy.

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