While many airports still shut down during the late night hours, airlines continue to grow their number of late-night flight options, also known as red-eye flights. While the U.S. Department of Transportation does not keep tabs on the number of late-night flights, major airlines offer overnight travel options across the United States, Europe, Russia, Australia, India, and South America. Although they're the bane of many weary business travelers, red-eye flights do offer some advantages to airlines and travelers alike, and there are a few steps that can make the night-eating flight a less exhausting experience.
A red-eye flight denotes any flight moving west to east, against the direction of the sun, that occurs overnight, making the traveler experience a period of night that is just a few hours long. The term red-eye is used because of one of the most obvious physical effects of insufficient sleep: irritated, bloodshot eyes. In most cases, red-eye flights depart after 9 p.m. and arrive before 5 a.m. the next day, so flights like transatlantic flights that leave in the afternoon and arrive early the next morning, while still a tiring experience, are not considered red-eye flights. Not as commonly, people can refer to any long flight as a red-eye flight, regardless of the departure or arrival time.
Aside from giving extra options to the traveler, airlines have a few reasons for operating red-eye flights. An overnight flight gives an airline additional revenue from a fleet that otherwise would be sitting idle, and they can be used to get planes and crew in the proper position for the next day's schedule. It also gives them greater flexibility in handling passengers who might need to make an early morning connection.
The disruption to the traveler's sleep cycle is the major disadvantage to a red-eye flight. A five-hour flight from California to New York that leaves at 10 p.m. and arrives in the early morning makes it impossible for a traveler to get the recommended seven to nine hours of nightly sleep needed, even if that traveler slept every second from takeoff to landing. Jet lag can take a few days from which to recover and can bring symptoms like fatigue, insomnia, headaches, and digestive problems.
Travelers can take a few steps to lessen the physical impact of a red-eye flight. Seat selection is key. Seats at the back of the plane are the worst, as they do not recline and are usually by the bathroom, ensuring a consistent line of people standing next to their occupants during the flight. Exit row seats also do not recline but usually offer more legroom, and the travelers in front of them are not able to recline either. Window seats are the best for sleep, with the plane wall there for the traveler to lean upon. Carry-on items like a travel pillow, a sleep mask and ear plugs can help a traveler sleep during the quick night. Once at their destination, however, red-eye travelers should avoid sleeping until regular sleeping hours, because even short naps can disrupt one's sleep rhythm.
Red-eye flights do offer a few advantages for the traveler. Red-eye flights are cheaper than daytime options in most cases. Hardy business travelers can maximize efficiency, not losing work time before or after the trip, and leisure travelers with limited vacation time can make the most of their allotted days. The airport can be less of a hassle, with fewer people in the check-in and security lines late at night, and the fewer flights during late hours means planes are less likely to face congestion delays. Once on the plane, red-eye flights are usually less crowded than daytime flights, so there's plenty of space to find optimal seats, grab pillows and blankets, and get a spot in the overhead luggage bin.