Flying across multiple time zones can wreak havoc on your body’s circadian rhythm and leave you with lingering jet lag.
Passengers traveling from Los Angeles to London might need a day or two to adjust to the eight-hour time difference. Those who endure the 16-hour, 35-minute fight from Dallas/Fort Worth to Hong Kong might need several days to acclimate to the 13-hour time difference.
But flight crews aren’t given that luxury. While our passengers are adjusting to a new time zone, we’re heading back to the airport to work a return flight to the previous time zone.
At the airline I work for, crews on long-haul flights to Europe lay over for only 24 hours. Same goes for Sydney, Australia, and Tokyo.
For most of us, jet lag is a constant issue that keeps us up at night.
Consider my most recent trip to Barcelona, Spain.
Our outbound flight departed Miami about 6 p.m. Eastern time and landed nine hours later at 9 a.m. local time, which was 3 a.m. Miami time.
This trip sequence allowed a 24-hour layover that began 30 minutes after the last passenger exited the plane and ended the next day when we returned to the airport.
Like most of my colleagues, I was dog tired by the time our crew bus reached the Barcelona layover hotel.
Nevertheless, several of the flight attendants chose not to sleep. They immediately showered, dressed and fanned out across the city to shop, sightsee or stroll the streets until they dropped.
I refer to these sleep-deprived coworkers as Jet-Lagged Zombies.
Ignoring the body’s plea for much-needed shut-eye, Jet-Lagged Zombies exhaust themselves to the brink of collapse, then stagger back to the hotel.
Exhaustion can trick the body into thinking it hasn’t changed time zones. Consequently, my weary colleagues sleep soundly through the night and wake up refreshed for the long trip home the next morning.
My body doesn’t work that way.
After driving an hour to Miami International Airport, flying nine hours across six time zones and being bused to the Barcelona layover hotel, I long for my hotel bed.
So I dozed fitfully as I often do when trying to sleep in a distant time zone in the middle of the day. When I woke up four or five hours later that afternoon, fatigue clung to me like a soggy overcoat.
I wore it to the hotel gym and managed a lackluster workout. I wore it to an early dinner, where a single glass of wine made me feel as if I’d downed a bottle.
Later that night, I lay in bed, staring at the ceiling, counting imaginary passengers leaping over an imaginary carry-on bag.
It was midnight Barcelona time, yet my body continued to operate on Miami time, where it was 6 p.m.
I tossed and turned and turned and tossed and tossed and turned some more. Thirty minutes after finally falling asleep, the hotel phone rang. It was my 8 a.m. (2 a.m. Miami time) wake-up call.
Sluggish and puffy-eyed, I showered and dressed before joining my crew on the 9 a.m. bus to the airport.
Woefully sleep deprived, I found my flight home exceptionally brutal.
On previous trips, I’ve tried using Zolpidem, better known as Ambien, a prescription sedative. For me, it induced sleep but didn’t stop me from waking up at 4 a.m. local time.
Besides, I don’t want to rely on prescription meds, as many of my colleagues do. It’s not healthy. And I don’t want to become a Jet-Lagged Zombie.
So, how can a flight attendant sleep at night in Europe when his body thinks its afternoon in the U.S.?
Simple. Instead of flying east and west across multiple time zones, I choose to work flights that operate south and north.
This time of year, flights from Miami to Rio de Janeiro cross a single time zone, so jet lag is not an issue.
And the layover lasts a generous 35 hours.
In Rio, there’s no need to count imaginary passengers while trying to fall sleep, even if I’m wide awake at sunrise.