Air­lines ask doc­tors how to make long flights bet­ter

The Charlotte Observer (Sunday) - - Business - BY PERRY GARFINKEL

Turk­ish Air­lines brought in Dr. Mehmet Oz, host and pro­ducer of “The Dr. Oz Show.” Singapore Air­lines turned to Dr. Richard Car­mona, a former U.S. sur­geon gen­eral who is now chief of health innovation at the re­sort spa Canyon Ranch. Air France works with its own med­i­cal avi­a­tion doc­tor and psy­chol­o­gist.

Air­lines have long vied to of­fer the most front-of-plane ameni­ties. More re­cently, the com­pe­ti­tion has moved to a new area: in-flight well­ness pro­grams meant to help pas­sen­gers ward off the ef­fects of air travel, espe­cially on nonstop long-haul and the newer ul­tra-long­haul flights, with med­i­ta­tion apps, ex­er­cises, bet­ter blan­kets and bed­ding, her­bal teas and health­ier meals.

Some car­ri­ers have gone fur­ther, hir­ing doc­tors and other health pro­fes­sion­als to pre­scribe what they say are pro­grams based in sci­ence.

But are these pro­grams help­ing? Or are they pub­lic re­la­tions cam­paigns that sound good with­out be­ing par­tic­u­larly ef­fec­tive?

The answer to both ques­tions is a qual­i­fied yes.

“These are pos­i­tive ges­tures to­ward health­ier cabin en­vi­ron­ments and ex­pe­ri­ences, though some­what be­hind the times,” said Charles Platkin, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Hunter Col­lege New York Food Pol­icy Cen­ter and ed­i­tor of Di­etDe­tec­tive.com, a web­site that rates and ranks the health­i­ness of in-flight snacks and meals. “But I won­der if the air­lines are just jump­ing on the PR band­wagon to earn brag­ging rights and stay com­pet­i­tive.”

As for suc­cess­ful out­comes and re­sults, Stephen Simp­son, aca­demic di­rec­tor of the Univer­sity of Syd­ney’s Charles Perkins Cen­ter, who over­sees Qan­tas Air­ways’ well­ness ef­forts, echoes other doc­tors in­volved with air­lines.

“We don’t have enough sci­en­tif­i­cally rig­or­ous ev­i­dence yet to sub­mit to peer re­view for pro­fes­sional jour­nals,” Simp­son said. He ex­pects the re­sults of a 2,000-pas­sen­ger Qan­tas study, cur­rently un­der­way, in less than six months.

Al­though sev­eral web­sites rate air­line meals, seats and on-time records, none rate in-flight health and well­ness pro­grams. Nor are there stud­ies or pub­lished re­ports that cor­re­late the availabili­ty of such pro­grams to in­creases in book­ings. Air­lines do not re­lease their own pas­sen­ger sat­is­fac­tion sur­veys to the pub­lic.

“We have been look­ing to add a sep­a­rate rat­ing for well­ness of­fer­ings, as it’s an im­por­tant and emerging is­sue” that will af­fect trav­el­ers’ choices, said Ge­of­frey Thomas, ed­i­tor-in-chief of Air­lineRat­ings.com.

Each of the doc­tors who con­sult for air­lines uses his own cri­te­ria to deal with the ills as­so­ci­ated with air travel, but they all say their re­search shows that, as Simp­son put it, “the big­gest ele­phant in the cabin still is the cir­ca­dian clock.” An off-time body clock leads to what is com­monly known as jet lag. “The hu­man body was not designed to cross sev­eral time zones in such a short time, so we are ba­si­cally try­ing to trick it into be­liev­ing it’s not,” Simp­son added.

Oz, a car­dio­tho­racic sur­geon of Turk­ish de­scent, said he ap­proached the task of work­ing with Turk­ish Air­lines as a sci­en­tist. “I con­sid­ered the impact of air travel on all five senses, plus on one’s state of mind,” he said, “and then ap­plied my col­lected med­i­cal knowl­edge and ex­pe­ri­ence to de­velop reme­dies and cop­ing op­tions.”

Some air­lines pro­mote a se­lec­tion of her­bal teas, but Oz sought out herbs with spe­cific po­ten­tial health ben­e­fits for peo­ple sit­ting in airplanes. Teas on Turk­ish Air­lines now in­clude rooi­bos (an African shrub that con­tains cal­cium and mag­ne­sium, which can help re­duce stress), roselle (a species of hibiscus that re­port­edly re­lieves bloat­ing by con­tribut­ing to the fluid and elec­trolyte bal­ance) and a blend of green tea, cin­na­mon, ginger, corn silk and garam masala (to aid the ex­cre­tion of ex­ces­sive fluid).

He said he also drew on his own ex­pe­ri­ence grow­ing up in Turkey. “Naturally, I in­tro­duced more food items from the Mediter­ranean diet, which has proved to be among the world’s health­i­est.”

In ad­di­tion, Oz said he pre­scribed a se­ries of head-to-toe ex­er­cises to off­set the ef­fects of be­ing seden­tary for many hours in un­com­fort­able seat­ing in small spa­ces, all made worse by be­ing en­closed in a low-mois­ture com­part­ment with lim­ited ven­ti­la­tion.

Car­mona said Singapore Air­lines had asked him and his Canyon Ranch col­leagues to de­velop per­son­al­ized well­ness pro­grams that in­cor­po­rated exercise, bet­ter food choices and im­proved sleep strate­gies “to repli­cate at 30,000 feet what we do on the ground” at Canyon Ranch’s two re­sort spas. The air­line now flies the world’s long­est com­mer­cial route, a 10,400-mile flight of nearly 19 hours from Singapore to Ne­wark Lib­erty In­ter­na­tional Air­port.

Car­mona said the per­son­al­iza­tion of in-flight well­ness raised a ques­tion. “How can we de­moc­ra­tize air travel?” he asked. “How can we make sure pas­sen­gers in econ­omy get the same well­ness ameni­ties as those in higher classes of seat­ing?”

One answer, he said, might in­volve ex­plor­ing how to make use of new ge­netic find­ings.

“If we could iden­tify genes that code for cir­ca­dian dys­rhyth­mia, we could make di­etary and en­vi­ron­men­tal rec­om­men­da­tions on a pas­sen­ger-by-pas­sen­ger ba­sis,” he said, adding, “Five to 10 years from now, we may be able to use peo­ple’s ge­nomic foot­print – their DNA pro­file – to im­prove not only their flight but their lives.”

Simp­son said his team at the Perkins Cen­ter was tak­ing a cross-dis­ci­plinary ap­proach for Qan­tas, build­ing a well­ness pro­gram on four pillars: car­dio-meta­bolic health; sleep; im­mune func­tions; and cognition and mood. He is work­ing with cir­ca­dian bi­ol­o­gists, sleep physi­cians, bio­chem­i­cal en­gi­neers, im­mu­nol­o­gists and re­searchers who study cog­ni­tive be­hav­ior.

The Perkins Cen­ter is ex­am­in­ing data col­lected from med­i­cal-grade mon­i­tors that Qan­tas at­tached to trav­el­ers that recorded their sleep, ac­tiv­ity and pos­ture in flight. A se­cond phase of that study is un­der­way.

The med­i­cal team work­ing for Air France, di­rected by the air­line’s med­i­cal avi­a­tion physi­cian, Dr. Vin­cent Feuil­lie, has fo­cused on off­set­ting the anx­i­eties as­so­ci­ated with air travel. Philippe Goeury, a psy­chol­o­gist for Air France, cited a long list of stress-in­duc­ing con­di­tions, in­clud­ing “dras­tic se­cu­rity rules and longer lines, air traf­fic con­ges­tion, more wait­ing time in the air­ports be­fore board­ing, more and more peo­ple shar­ing less and less space in the econ­omy seat­ing en­vi­ron­ment.”

Still, no mat­ter how well in­ten­tioned these pro­grams, are air­lines’ investment­s worth it? Not nec­es­sar­ily, said Sean Mullen, as­so­ci­ate pro­fes­sor and di­rec­tor of the Exercise, Tech­nol­ogy and Cognition Lab­o­ra­tory at the Univer­sity of Illi­nois at Ur­bana-Cham­paign.

Mullen, an ex­pert in brain train­ing who takes about six do­mes­tic busi­ness trips a year, said he had tried var­i­ous air­line on-screen pro­grams that were sup­posed to im­prove men­tal and phys­i­cal well­be­ing in flight. He was not im­pressed.

“You’d get just as much bang for your buck by stand­ing in the aisle and walk­ing to the re­stroom even if you didn’t have to go,” he said. “Phys­i­cal ac­tiv­ity and re­duc­ing seden­tary time are likely the best ways to im­prove your men­tal state in such a con­fined space. Al­ter­na­tively, buy some noise can­cel­la­tion speak­ers or use an app to fa­cil­i­tate rhyth­mic breath­ing and mind­ful­ness.”

KRISTA SCHLUETER NYT

Dr. Mehmet Oz has helped Turk­ish Air­lines de­velop an in-flight well­ness pro­gram meant to help pas­sen­gers ward off air travel’s negative ef­fects.

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