Are you doing anything fun this summer? Probably. Real Research found that 87% of their online survey respondents were planning to travel during the summer of 2023, with 18% of respondents citing “the availability of flights and transportation options” as their top factor influencing the decision to travel . “Revenge travel”, aka making up for the past few years of pandemic-related isolation by going on a trip, is sending summer flight prices and demand for air travel sky-rocketing [2-4]. It isn’t just tourists skipping town either. Skift Research conducted a survey amongst business travelers from the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, and India to get a global perspective on upcoming trends for business travel. Skift found that business trips taken in the past 6 months have increased from pre-pandemic numbers, and that remote work arrangements are boosting both business and leisure travel. Flights were the most used mode of transportation by business travelers, with flight timings and flight duration as key selection criteria .
The increase in demand for travel is creating chaos with regards to scheduling flights. If you've already booked a flight to travel this summer, there is a chance your departure time or day of travel has already been changed . In some ways, this change is good. Data analytics company Airport Technology predicts that the aviation industry will finally be able to reach a profit in 2023 for the first time since the pandemic. They recently interviewed a series of aviation experts about what would be 2023’s airline travel trends . The experts predict a focus on eco-friendly, customer-friendly, low-cost travel options that can weather shortages in aircraft of crew members.
To me, the current issues with scheduling and the experts’ predictions smell like a lot like a call for ultra-long-range flights. Ultra-long-range (ULR) flights are typically longer than 14 hours in length with the goal of ferrying travelers from one corner of the globe to the other. ULR operations came into the spotlight during and after the COVID-19 pandemic . The touted advantages to ULR operations include bypassing traffic in large hub airports, reducing operational costs and fuel consumption, and strengthening the socio-economic ties between two distant locations . A particular advantage to ULR in a post-COVID world is that direct flights can avoid unnecessary person-to-person contact during layovers. ULR flight plans are increasingly desirable and obtainable. Travel news website One Mile at a Time recently listed the world’s 20 longest flights, emphasizing the role that advancements in airplane technology has had on our ability to zip around the globe . And of course, if you’re both a sleep science nerd and a travel nerd (like me!), you’ve been stalking updates on Qantas’ Project Sunrise initiative since 2017 . Qantas recently revealed pictures of the new first and business class cabins that were designed by sleep scientists for these ULR flights, and they look nicer than many of the apartments I have lived in.
Passengers may be ready to live in the skies, but what about the crew? Having a flight-duty period that is longer than 12 hours doesn’t sound good from a fatigue risk management perspective. Even though ULR flights are augmented, meaning that the flight is staffed with extra pilots who rotate in and out of the cockpit to avoid undue fatigue, being in the work environment that long is bound to be emotionally draining. The COVID-19 circumstances that seemingly point to the feasibility of ULR  may be ignoring the role of pilots’ motivation. As an example, Brazilian airline Azul Linhas Aéreas found themselves thrust into the role of ULR operator when the pandemic necessitated couriering medical supplies between China and Brazil . While the Azul pilots during the COVID humanitarian flights were able to avoid fatigue risk during the 11-15 hour-long flight segments, the Human Factors team at Azul stressed that the pilots’ motivation to serve their country was a key factor to maintaining alertness. It is unlikely that pilots will be equally enthusiastic to fly for 14 hours straight to transport business or leisure travelers as they would be for humanitarian relief flights.
There were also zero passengers on those humanitarian flights. Dealing with people on the ground is exhausting, so you can imagine how fatiguing it is to cater to passengers who are stuck in their seats for 14+ hours. Cabin crew may be at an elevated risk for fatigue during ULR flights. Even when the schedule allows for breaks, it is hard to decompress in a pressurized cabin. Workload is an important factor to consider for fatigue risk management in ULR operations. SAFTE-FAST allows users to model some features of workload, such as time-on-task, difficulty of the aircraft controls, or the terrain of the landing air strip. Accounting for compound fatigue risk, or the impact of high workload, time-of-day effects, and sleep history, is a goal for SAFTE-FAST’s fatigue risk management services. However, even though the science team at IBR are aware of the fatiguing impact of psychological factors, the impact of working in close quarters for hours on end (with the potential that some of the people sharing that space may be annoying) on an individual’s ability to perform is not currently modellable.
Despite demand for longer flights and more travel, we’re not in “nonstop summer” territory yet. 2023 is starting to look up for airlines after a bumpy couple years but the skies aren’t clear yet. Pilot shortages, fuel prices, the need for security and cleanliness protocols and a changing travel market are still creating turbulence for commercial airlines. Long flights are here already and advancements to airplane technology is quickly making ULR flights a reality. However, the aviation industry still needs to figure out functional fatigue risk management solutions before ULR wedges itself into our collective definition of the new normal.