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United Airlines unveiled its all-new United Polaris business class, the airline's most significant product transformation in more than a decade, including 6-foot-long sleep pods/seats, here in a June 2016 image.

United Airlines unveiled its all-new United Polaris business class, the airline's most significant product transformation in more than a decade, including 6-foot-long sleep pods/seats, here in a June 2016 image. (Kristen Norman/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

CHICAGO - It will take all six of the "Lord of the Rings" and "Hobbit" movies to fill the 17 hours and 20 minutes on Qantas' new flight from Chicago to Brisbane, Australia.

The 8,901-mile flight, which begins operating next spring, will become the longest nonstop flight operating out of O'Hare International Airport, nudging aside an Air Zealand flight to Auckland that covers 8,181 miles.

Lighter, more fuel-efficient planes are making it possible for airlines to offer longer flights that cross more time zones. But for many travelers, spending half a day or more in the air is a recipe for stiff muscles and serious jet lag.

To make those flights a little more comfortable, airlines are trying to help travelers adjust to new time zones by playing with cabin lighting and meal timing, passing out cooling gel pillows and pajamas for better rest, and encouraging passengers to move around.

"It's not just about making it a comfortable flight, but making sure that when you get to your destination, you feel as good as you can," said Phil Capps, Qantas' head of customer product and service.

Thanks to its home base in Australia, Qantas is no stranger to operating long flights. In 2017, it began working with researchers at the University of Sydney's Charles Perkins Centre to try to make those flights feel shorter.

Qantas is still working out the details of what its service between Chicago and Brisbane will look like. But flights between Perth and London, which have averaged 16 and 17 hours, depending on the direction, since launching last year, show the kinds of strategies Chicago travelers might expect.

Business-class seats have aisle access and can stay fully reclined from takeoff to landing, while premium economy seats have headrests designed to accommodate ergonomic pillows. Economy passengers also get more space between each seat, Qantas said.

While many perks focus on passengers in the front of the cabin, some benefit all travelers. To help travelers avoid jet lag, the carrier tinkered with light, temperature and meal timing, which can all affect the body's internal clock, Capps said. Cool hues such as blue, for instance, tend to make people feel awake, while red and orange light can make them more inclined to sleep.

United Airlines unveiled its all-new United Polaris business class, the airline's most significant product transformation in more than a decade, including headphones, here in a June 2016 image.

United Airlines unveiled its all-new United Polaris business class, the airline's most significant product transformation in more than a decade, including headphones, here in a June 2016 image. (Kristen Norman/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

Qantas worked with Boeing to program cabin lights to shine in a sequence meant to help travelers adjust to the time zone in the city where they'll arrive. The airline makes similar adjustments to the cabin temperature throughout the flight and tweaks the timing of meals.

Even delaying the first meal service by an hour or so, rather than serving immediately after takeoff, can start helping passengers adjust to the right time zone, he said. The menu on the Perth-London flights was also designed to help travelers stay hydrated and feel ready to rest at the right times.

Qantas' Dreamliners have self-service bars where passengers in economy and business class can grab beverages including herbal tea and juices. The goal isn't just to help flight attendants avoid another trip down the aisle with the drinks cart.

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"We know if you get your blood moving, you'll feel more comfortable. It's as much about your ability to walk from your seat to those locations as what you do in those locations," Capps said.

Helping travelers start adjusting to a new time zone in-flight makes sense, sleep experts said. The catch is that passengers aren't necessarily starting on the same schedule - some might be starting their journey, while others are on a connecting flight mid-trip, said Phyllis Zee, an expert in sleep and circadian rhythm disorders at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine.

"What would be really cool would be to individualize it based on the person's itinerary," Zee said.

That's tough on a plane, where it's hard to escape a seatmate's overhead light and there's no such thing as a personal thermostat.

Airlines try to give passengers some control. On United Airlines' long-haul international flights, business-class seats come with two different blankets - one lighter, one warmer - as well as cooling gel pillows. Mattress pads are also available.

There are noise-reducing headphones and in-flight entertainment systems have channels meant to provide relaxing background noise and visuals, such as guided meditations and ambient video of outdoor landscapes, said Mark Krolick, United's vice president of marketing.

United's international business class, Polaris, has one perk that's just for flights over 12 hours: pajamas.

It's no accident there are more perks for passengers paying for premium seats. Flying with fewer seats reduces the aircraft's weight and helps stretch its range. But that means airlines need to generate more revenue from each seat that's left. In many cases, extra-long flights only make financial sense if airlines can fill the planes with a larger-than-usual share of business and premium economy passengers, who pay higher fares, said John Grant, senior analyst with aviation data firm OAG.

That's also why you're unlikely to see airlines add features such as exercise areas that would help travelers pass the time but take up a lot of space, he said.

Many of the 154 scheduled flights longer than 6,900 miles, which can run 13 hours or more, connect major business hubs, Grant said. O'Hare, which has 11 such routes to destinations including Hong Kong, Abu Dhabi and Dubai, is attractive for airlines operating extra-long routes because it lets travelers connect to a wide range of destinations, he said.

And while it's tougher to snooze sitting sandwiched between other flyers in coach than in a lie-flat business class seat, there's at least one thing travelers can do to boost the odds of arriving relatively well-rested, wherever they're sitting: stop worrying about their sleep.

"For a lot of people, sleep is elusive because they're trying to control it so desperately," said Christopher Winter, a sleep specialist and owner of the Charlottesville Neurology and Sleep Medicine clinic. "Resting, if done properly, is doing about as much good as sleep is, and that's perfectly under your control."

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