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Sveta Postnova wants to make 20-hour flights more bearable for travelers.
By Alaina G. Levine | August 10, 2023
Qantas Airlines, an Australian company, is planning the longest-ever flights, slated to begin in 2025 — and one physicist is working to make the experience better for flyers.
Most people don’t like long flights, rife as they are with claustrophobic seating and loud neighbors. But one airline, Qantas, is about to unveil the longest flight routes ever planned. The flights — 20 hours from Sydney to London, 19 from Sydney to New York — will be unveiled in 2025, promising customers nonstop trips around the world.
One physicist is working with Qantas to make the long-haul flights more bearable for flyers. Dr. Sveta Postnova, Senior Lecturer in Neurophysics and Brain Dynamics at the University of Sydney, weaves together physiology, biology, and physics, studying sleep and circadian rhythms to uncover what might make the flights easier — for example, by minimizing jet lag, the bane of any globetrotter’s travel.
She works in the field of neurophysics, the study of the brain using physics’ techniques and tools. With an undergraduate degree in physics and PhD in computational neuroscience, Postnova is up to the long-flight challenge: She is an expert in chronophysics, a term she coined to describe research in the biophysical modeling of circadian rhythms, which determine sleep and hormone cycles.
She started partnering with industry almost 10 years ago, when she was invited to propose a project for a Cooperative Research Centre (CRC) in Australia, a consortium that supports collaboration between university researchers and companies. Postnova worked for seven years with a CRC that focused on alertness research. “I learned how to navigate this space,” she says.
In 2015, Qantas approached Postnova with a problem to solve: The airline, which was planning a 17-hour, Perth-to-London nonstop, wanted to know how best to schedule in-flight activities.
“This collaboration is absolutely unique,” says neurophysicist Sveta Postnova.
Aboard a typical long-haul flight, the cabin stays lit for two or three hours after takeoff, and then meals are served. The lights are then dimmed for the remainder of the flight, until about two hours before arrival. But “when the duration of the flight gets longer and longer, this approach cannot work anymore, because this results in passengers being in darkness for 14 hours,” Postnova says, making it harder for passengers to adjust to the time zone once they land.
To combat this, Postnova is designing interventions that can be used before, during, and after a flight. “It’s the whole passenger journey experience,” she says. One of her first suggestions was to change the in-flight light and meal service times to help travelers adapt to their destination’s time zone. “Light is the key time cue for our circadian system,” she says, “and if you align the lights correctly, then you can start adjusting while you are flying.”
Postnova is experimenting not only with timing, but type — like what kinds of onboard lighting would encourage wakefulness and sleep at the right times.
In 2019, Postnova traveled on a 19-hour research flight aboard a Boeing Dreamliner from New York to Sydney. The passengers served as test subjects for initiatives that Postnova and colleagues hypothesized would abate jet lag. By altering the type and timing of lighting, meals, and exercises, the travelers experienced less jet lag and were more alert after the flight, she says.
“I never thought, as a physicist, I would be presenting at press conferences with major airlines or going on a research flight,” she says. “This collaboration is absolutely unique, and the experiences it has given me are very special.”
Postnova recently received funding from the Australian government to expand her research with Qantas, but not all her work is aimed at the skies. She also studies circadian rhythms in shift workers, whose sleep cycles are often disrupted, and she’s now modeling how aging affects sleep and cognitive performance.
“When I was doing my PhD, doing this type of biological modeling was still quite new and people didn’t really believe it could go very far,” she says. “But now it is widely accepted, and just seeing we can make an impact for everyday life is the biggest thing for me.”
Alaina G. Levine is a professional speaker, STEM career coach, and author of the books Networking for Nerds (Wiley) and Create Your Unicorn Career (forthcoming).
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