I could be sleeping with anyone tonight. That dreadlocked guy who shifts and fidgets in his sleep, squeaking the seats and slapping my cheek with his wayward locks. The woman gripping my hand in terror as she waits for her Xanax to kick in. The man who Facetimes his wife before take-off and snores so stridently I'm dislodged from the grips of my own torpor.
It's an ignominious thing, trying to attain that most blissful of nirvanas – sleep – in the company of 300 strangers. But such is the reality for those of us travelling at the plane's blunt end: we must spend the night economically packaged and positioned like upright sardines.
So frequently do I travel for work – and so often am I required to hit the ground running – it was essential that I master (after many a sleepless flight) the art of sleeping on planes. Pills are out of the question; what if I awake groggy or in an empty plane parked in a hanger in some foreign country? What if the medication disrupts my otherwise healthy sleep cycle?
No. Preparation for vertical slumber is a complex procedure that begins long before I close my eyes. To start, an aisle seat is essential in expanding my personal space and giving me unhindered access to the toilet. I'm friendly with my neighbour but not so much they assume I'm up for an all-night gabfest. My water bottle is filled and tucked into the seat pocket lest I wake in the night with a raging, altitude-induced thirst.
My compact allotment must be transformed into a welcoming, soporific cocoon: shoes and superfluous clothing are discarded, the airline blanket swaddles me. After the cabin is dimmed I read in a pool of light until I'm sleepy (I might extend bedtime to better suit my destination). Then I coddle my head in a memory-foam pillow (Cabeau's is my favourite; cabeau.com), tuck a cushion into the small of my back, recline my seat and shut out the world with an eye mask (earplugs are good for silencing snorers).
Crucially, a slumberous flight requires mental preparation: I've long ago accepted my lot as an economy passenger, and give frequent thanks for the magic of air travel. Now I slow my breath, coax my mind into a state of calm, picture myself sinking into a bubble of warmth and darkness and wait for sleep to claim me.