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Winged Victory: Catching Some Shut-Eye on a Long-Haul Flight


By plane from Los Angeles, it's 15 hours to New Delhi, 13 hours to Beijing and 10 hours to London. An economy-class seat is generally 17 inches wide, while most women are about 15 inches from hip to hip. These facts alone are enough to make any sane person stay home. But I want to see India, China and England, and don't have time to take a boat. So I suffer through long-haul flights, arriving at my destination looking and feeling like a junkyard due to jet lag. I doubt I'll ever conquer that, but I've been working on a related problem: how to endure long flights.

The key is sleep, which to me is one of life's principal pleasures. So I try to view the prospect of spending 10 or more hours in the air as a sleeping opportunity. I exercise hard the day of my departure and indulge in a carbohydrate-rich meal (like pasta) several hours before takeoff, which makes me happy and comatose.

Once aboard the plane, I turn my seat into a friendly habitat, the way my mother did for me when I was a little girl at home in bed with a tummy ache. I wear slip-on shoes and comfortable clothes (definitely no jeans, nylons or underwires); grab as many blankets and pillows as I can; and pack the seat pocket in front of me with magazines and books, water (1.5 liters for every six hours), snacks such as energy bars and fruit, toiletries and a flight kit.

The kit contains "comfort items," as Sharon B. Wingler, a Delta flight attendant for more than 25 years and author of "Travel Alone & Love It" (Chicago Spectrum Press, $14.95), puts it. These include a full range of accouterments to make you look really stupid in flight, such as a "Do Not Disturb" sign, an inflatable pillow to support your neck, eyeshades, earplugs, woolly socks and a bulky sweater. Thus equipped, I eat the first meal served, cuddle up and awake on the other side of the world as fresh as the dawn--in theory.

In practice, there are any number of impediments to sleep on a long flight, beginning with the seat. Christopher J. McGinnis, author of "The Unofficial Business Traveler's Pocket Guide" (McGraw Hill, $10.95), suggests that you use frequent-flier miles to upgrade yourself out of economy class, get your seat assignment when you purchase your ticket if possible, or try to get a new seat at the gate if you've been given one you don't like.

But it won't be easy, according to Consumer Reports Travel Letter, which recently found that 41% of the coach seats on 800 wide-body planes used by 11 global airlines are undesirable--in the middle, non-reclining or too close to smelly, heavily trafficked bathrooms. Airbus A300s and 767s have the lowest number of middle seats. If you're traveling with a partner, you should request the window and aisle in a row of three because the middle is sometimes left open. To get the most room in coach, some favor bulkhead or exit row seats, though people traveling with infants are usually put up front in the bulkhead, while armrests in exit rows generally don't flip up.

A row of empties is what you really want. In fact, Sharon Wingler prefers this option to business class. But seat assignments are made by computer, which is why passengers are often perversely crowded together on half-full flights. Wingler says that if you're especially nice to crew members, you might get help moving to a seat in an empty row. Some even bring along packets of M&Ms to use as bribes.

I just sit myself down in the nearest empty row. If I'm booted out as the last passengers arrive, I hang my head and return to my assigned place. If not, I flip up the armrests, pad the space between the seats with blankets, buckle up in a visible fashion (so the flight attendants don't disturb me when we hit turbulence) and turn out the light. This is how I made the long flight to Hong Kong last month, though just before takeoff a woman took the seat at the far end of the row. But without saying a word, she got down on the floor and went to sleep while I stretched out above her, an amicable arrangement for all concerned.

When I just can't nod off, I take a prescription sleeping pill called Ambien. It gives me a deep sleep and has no aftereffects, but must be used carefully because it can be addictive. Dr. Alan M. Spira of the Travel Medicine Center in Beverly Hills recommends trying other sleep inducements first. "Don't touch coffee or Coke until the end of the flight, and watch out for chocolate because it makes some people hyperactive," he says. "Over-the-counter drugs like Tylenol PM, Benadryl and Dramamine can help too."

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