The effect of consecutive transmeridian flights on alertness, sleep–wake cycles and sleepiness: a case study

Christopher J. Gordon*, Maria Comas, Svetlana Postnova, Christopher B. Miller, Dibyendu Roy, Delwyn J. Bartlett, Ronald R. Grunstein

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

8 Citations (Scopus)


Travel across time zones disrupts circadian rhythms causing increased daytime sleepiness, impaired alertness and sleep disturbance. However, the effect of repeated consecutive transmeridian travel on sleep–wake cycles and circadian dynamics is unknown. The aim of this study was to investigate changes in alertness, sleep–wake schedule and sleepiness and predict circadian and sleep dynamics of an individual undergoing demanding transmeridian travel. A 47-year-old healthy male flew 16 international flights over 12 consecutive days. He maintained a sleep–wake schedule based on Sydney, Australia time (GMT + 10 h). The participant completed a sleep diary and wore an Actiwatch before, during and after the flights. Subjective alertness, fatigue and sleepiness were rated 4 hourly (08:00–00:00), if awake during the flights. A validated physiologically based mathematical model of arousal dynamics was used to further explore the dynamics and compare sleep time predictions with observational data and to estimate circadian phase changes. The participant completed 191 h and 159 736 km of flying and traversed a total of 144 time-zones. Total sleep time during the flights decreased (357.5 min actigraphy; 292.4 min diary) compared to baseline (430.8 min actigraphy; 472.1 min diary), predominately due to restricted sleep opportunities. The daily range of alertness, sleepiness and fatigue increased compared to baseline, with heightened fatigue towards the end of the flight schedule. The arousal dynamics model predicted sleep/wake states during and post travel with 88% and 95% agreement with sleep diary data. The circadian phase predicted a delay of only 34 min over the 16 transmeridian flights. Despite repeated changes in transmeridian travel direction and flight duration, the participant was able to maintain a stable sleep schedule aligned with the Sydney night. Modelling revealed only minor circadian misalignment during the flying period. This was likely due to the transitory time spent in the overseas airports that did not allow for resynchronisation to the new time zone. The robustness of the arousal model in the real-world was demonstrated for the first time using unique transmeridian travel.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1471-1480
Number of pages10
JournalChronobiology International
Issue number11
Publication statusPublished - 2018
Externally publishedYes


  • Alertness
  • fatigue
  • mathematical model
  • sleep
  • transmeridian travel


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