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posted: 1/11/2014 5:30 AM

How can you get sleep on an airplane?

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  • Picking the right seat and listening to music can help put you in the right mode for sleep when flying.

    Picking the right seat and listening to music can help put you in the right mode for sleep when flying.


"Did you hear about the guy who slept right through the deplaning of his aircraft in Houston?" asked my old flying partner, when we met for our monthly lunch in St. Louis.

"When he woke up it was dark and he was locked in the aircraft. Pretty amazing, huh?"

It is amazing. Airline crews always make a sweep of the aircraft after passengers deplane. Not only to check for straggling passengers but to check for forgotten items. Jackets, computers and carry-ons go directly to lost-and-found. Books, magazines or thousand-dollar bills left in the seat pockets go directly to -- well -- found. But I digress.

That the crew skipped checking the plane is unusual. But what is really amazing is that someone could actually sleep that deeply in an airline seat.

During the glory days of flying, passengers often had a row to themselves and could stretch out for a good night's sleep. Arthur Frommer, the man who put budget travel on the map, remembers stretching out under the seats on an international flight and sleeping snugly tucked into a cozy blanket.

But today, "snugly" means sleeping in an upright position, squeezed between passengers and belly-up to the seat in front. And forget about the cozy blanket. Pillows and blankets, which used to be perks on long flights, now are endangered species. It's BYOB (Bring Your Own Blanket) and find a way to cope.

It's not just the lack of comfort that keeps sleep at bay. On some aircraft, the noise level can cause hearing loss. Sit in the back of a DC-9 or an MD-80 and you can't hear the flight attendant ask if you want coffee. But you can hear neighboring passengers try to talk over the roar of the engines. And it sounds like fans screaming at a football game.

So how do you increase your odds for arriving rested at your destination? Here is what works for some travelers:

Pick the right seat. Not all seats are created equal. Kaley Clark, a retired gymnast, prefers the aisle seat. She throws a shawl over her head, curls into a ball and doesn't surface until the wheels touch down at her destination. For most of us, curling into a ball is not an option.

Doug Wood hates the aisle seat. He claims flight attendants aim for his knees and elbows with the in-aisle cart. He takes a window seat and uses the wall to brace his head. Sometimes he sleeps.

Nobody sleeps in the middle seat.

Embrace the noise. Not the 30-decimal engines roaring from the side of the aircraft. Or the man who snores like a locomotive seated next to you. Take ownership of your noise. Mark Cameron, a professional drummer, tunes into his iPod and tunes out the other noise. It also keeps chatty seatmates at bay.

Jean Cowden rents a headset. She doesn't always watch the movie. But she listens to the classical music. It's relaxing even if she doesn't sleep.

Pack for comfort. Slipper socks, a lightweight blanket and a sleep mask may put you in the mood for sleep. Nancy Carroll, my old flying partner, keeps them packed in her carry-on and occasionally dozes off for a couple of hours.

Judy Barr, a travel agent, would rather take away some of the noise than add to it. She packs a set of ear plugs and says it keeps the noise down to a dull roar.

Let's face it. Sleeping on an airplane is still pie-in-the sky for most of us. I need to talk to that man in Houston.

• Gail Todd, a freelance writer, worked as a flight attendant for more than 30 years. She can be reached via email at

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