Last month, British Airways flew a group of volunteers on flight BA 189 Dreamliner from Heathrow to New York as part of an experiment to study how people react to the night-time flight across time zones. What made this particular flight unusual were the high-tech "happiness blankets" issued to the passengers. While the glowing blankets didn't actually make the passengers happy, they did measure how relaxed they were as part of a study of how to combat jet lag.

The happiness blanket sounds a bit twee, but there’s a serious purpose behind it. Jet lag is the bane of frequent fliers and has a surprisingly powerful impact on travelers as their internal clocks struggle to catch up to shifts in the day’s natural rhythms that aren’t found in nature. Part of the problem is being stuck in a metal and plastic cylinder that’s about as far from natural as possible, which poses difficulties for psychologists and others tasked with improving passenger conditions.

The study reminds us of how controlled an environment an airliner is. Every kind of mass transit from the taxi cab to the railway train works by its own rules, and an airliner is like a cross between a battery hen coop and a church where rituals are used to convey the very practical message of “sit down and relax.” Using the happiness blanket, British Airways is trying to tweak those rituals to make air travel more relaxing and better suited to adjusting to a new time zone.

The happiness blanket works by measuring and displaying a person’s mood. The glowing covering uses neurosensors in a headband to measure brain waves and fiber optics woven into the material to reveal the level of a passenger’s relaxation. Red means the minimum of relaxation, and blue indicates the maximum relaxation.

There’s as much marketing as science involved here, since there’s no need for the blankets to have a readout mechanism, but it is a nice way of illustrating to the public what’s going on. Using data gleaned from volunteer fliers, British Airways hopes to learn how to adjust the various factors in the cabin options and routines, so they’re as relaxing as possible. These include lighting, mealtimes, menus, seating positions, types of films shown, and general cabin routine.

According to British Airways, the key to these adjustments is to provide passengers with the best sleep possible on long flights, which is one reason why the airline has introduced lie-flat seating for business class and above. Better relaxation provides the brain with as few distractions as possible while traveling to different time zones, so it has a chance to adjust.

“Sleeping on a plane is a great opportunity to reset your body clock so you arrive at your destination after a long flight, feeling refreshed and rested," says Vincent Walsh, professor of human brain research at University College London.

British Airways recommends that to minimize jet lag travelers should eat lightly before boarding, but avoid heavy eating on the plane, as well as alcohol, caffeine, and work or playing games, and to keep hydrated during the flight. Shoes should be removed to improve circulation, the passenger should lie down or recline as much as possible, wear a sleep mask to keep as much light out as possible, and use ear plugs to keep out noise. The airline says that it also provides relaxation audio feed or special relaxation video programs.

“Using technology like the British Airways ‘happiness blanket’ is another way for us to investigate how our customers’ relaxation and sleep is affected by everything on board, from the amount of light in the cabin, when they eat, to what in-flight entertainment they watch and their position in the seat” says Frank van der Post, British Airways’ managing director, brands and customer experience.

The video below outlines the happiness blanket test.

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