Why You Should Never Take A Sleeping Pill Prior To Take Off

Filed Under: Advice

This story came out last week but I was stuck on dodgy buses in Egypt, so have only managed to write about it now.

Some passengers take sleeping tablets or other supplements to help them sleep during flights.

I usually avoid these myself as they leave me feeling groggy and not very functional the next day. A couple of glasses of red wine with dinner usually does the trick for me.

For short overnight flights, you may be tempted to take a sleeping aid before the flight takes off, so that it starts working quickly after take off and you can fall asleep as soon as possible. But there can be risks involved with this.

I once decided to take a sleeping tablet in the lounge, before boarding a red eye flight from Colombo to Hong Kong on Cathay Pacific.

I was booked in business class and this flight was operated by an Airbus A330 with fully flat reverse herringbone seats. Once we boarded, take off was delayed by some time as we were held at the gate. I fell asleep before we even took off and awoke as we hit the tarmac on landing six hours later, sitting upright with my fully flat bed still fully upright.

I have no recollection of the flight other than that.

A waste of a business class ticket!


A Canadian man, Stephen Bennett, claims he was removed from a WestJet flight from Toronto, Canada to Havana, Cuba after taking a prescription sleeping pill prior to take off.

The cabin crew member tried to wake him prior to take off (I guess, noticing that he had fallen asleep before the plane had left the gate), and although he awoke and was able to communicate with the crew, the cabin crew declared him a ‘medical emergency.’ Mr. Bennett said there was miscommunication between himself and the crew, and that English was not the cabin crew’s first language.

He was removed from the plane in a wheelchair.

Here’s the strange part of this story though —  Mr. Bennett says he was medically examined by the airport paramedics after leaving the plane, explained he had taken a prescription sleeping tablet and showed the prescription note to the paramedics and they deemed him fit to fly.

The crew however were still unsatisfied, and refused to let him take the flight.

WestJet has said the passenger was removed for being ‘under the influence of drugs’ and would only say further that ‘the crew’s account of what occurred is different to Mr. Bennett’s.’

There are reports that Mr. Bennett admitted to paramedics he was recovering from a stroke at the time.

WestJet offered him a flight a week later. He did not want to wait that long so booked a flight on another carrier from Toronto the next day and wants WestJet to reimburse him.

Bottom line

I feel like there may have been more to this story than has been publicly reported.

Of course the crew should not have removed Mr. Bennett if he was able to function properly after the sleeping tablet. At the same time, if for whatever reason the sedative left him unable to communicate properly, the crew did have cause to be initially concerned.

But the airport paramedics clearing him to fly should have been enough to allow him to fly.

Regardless, it remains a reminder not to take any sleeping pills on a flight until the wheels have well and truly left the tarmac!

What do you make of this story? Was the crew just overzealous? What has been your experience taking sleeping pills on flights?

  1. And certainly don’t try that to or from the UAE. That gives you a free entry to Free Accomodation (Prison). Because if they catch you there with those they consider it as drugs. Even in Luggage.

  2. I’m surprised this blog never covered the story about Air France passengers who took Paris-Shangha and got stuck in Irkutsk, Russia, for almost 3 days after two of the planes broke down.

  3. Another reason not to take a sleeping pill until after takeoff is to ensure you are fully functioning in case of an emergency. Take off and landing are the phases of flight most likely to encounter problems. Waiting until reaching cruise level before taking off shoes, taking sleeping pills, etc. is a good practice.

  4. In the past I have taken a sleeping tablet, but it was a waste of the tablet. While I don’t travel on overnight flights but just once or twice a year, my strategy is to sleep as late as possible on the day of the flight and “stay awake” on the flight. If I’m traveling in business/first then I want to enjoy the experience. I’m usually very tired obviously and I usually go directly to the hotel (I arrange to pay for the night and letting them know I’ll be arriving between 7-10 am). I lie down and take an extended nap for about 4-5 hours. I know most people say “DON’T do this”, but it works for me. I get my second wind and go out and about, see the sights have dinner and usually find myself ready to sleep when the locals sleep and i’m fine the next day.

    The only time that was most difficult was DFW-NRT-DPS which entailed 24 total hours of travel from door to door. I managed to stay awake since I was flying in First. Arriving at the hotel I did take a sleeping tablet and woke adjusted to the time in Bali. The return however, was more difficult since I had a longer layover on the return in the lounge in NRT for 5 hours. But I dozed on the NRT-DFW leg so it turned out fine. If I use a tablet I use it after I land, too much can happen out of your control on a plane.

  5. That almost happened to me. I used to take ambien on domestic redeyes from SFO to JFK. I would usually take it just before boarding started. I remember one time I took the pill and then boarding was delayed 30 minutes. I was barely able to walk down the jetway by the time we did board.

  6. I think you’re missing the *real* reason to not take sleeping pills before taking off – safety. If something were to happen, you’d be totally screwed. You’d be completely vulnerable during one of the most critical phases of the flight. And, if you’re in an aisle or exit seat, you’ll be preventing others from getting out in an emergency.

  7. I took a melatonin pill while boarding a couple years ago, got in my seat for the red eye flight and woke up to find everyone standing and deplaning. One of the pilots was too tired to fly so I ended up staying the night in the airport that night.

    Melatonin isn’t like a sleeping pill though. I usually wake up without the groggy feeling a sleeping pill gives you.

  8. I think it is really important to remain alert and vigilant during take-off and landing. Some long haul flights offer slippers. But I always keep my shoes on until at least a few minutes after we are airborne. Just in case…..

  9. @Kenindfw do you use that strategy going to Europe or Asia? I find that by the time you get to where you need to be in Asia, it’s usually night time. by that time you’re so exhausted and confused after ~20 hours of travel that you eat and pass out, waking up on the correct timezone. On shorter hops (Europe) I try to sleep as much as I can on the plane because once I land (usually LHR as a gateway) I won’t sleep again until European night time.

  10. Always keep your shoes on, wallet, Passport and fully charged phone in your pockets or hand bag for takeoff and landing. Listen to flight attendant safety briefing (quietly so less experienced flyers can hear). In event of evacuation leave everything else behind. Plan ahead, know what to do. Your fellow passengers will be grateful.

  11. I once took an Ambien right before boarding a flight from KOA to SEA. The flight was only 5-6 hours. My husband had to wake me when we landed. I couldn’t stand up on my own. I was seeing triple. He didn’t have a great time shuffling me through the airport looking for a seat so I could go back to sleep on our layover. I know longer take Ambien unless I have 7-8 hours to devote to sleep. On the other hand, he functions just fine if he takes it and gets less than 7 hours of sleep. You’d never know he took anything.

  12. @Sam – that’s the same strategy I have. On flights to Asia I usually try to stay up for the flight, and since we land around 4pm local time I just power through to 10pm and fall asleep. Full night’s rest and I’m instantly on their time. To Europe, I usually have a few glasses of wine and try to sleep through the flight as much as possible. Then I’m up for the entire day (usually from 4 or 5am their time) to try and adjust to their schedule. Going west is always harder than going east, I find.

  13. Yea taking a sleeping pill before cruising altitude is just a terrible idea.
    If you’re not awake for the safety video the airline has a reason to take you off the flight.

  14. As many already said – safety first. Sleepy, not with it pax may not even be night mare to deal with, follow safety instruction but also hinder the whole emergency evacuation (in case one would arise).

    I’m surprised the airport doctors are not trained on advising that yes, you are OK, you only took prescription meds… but from the AVIATION POINT OF VIEW you are NOT FTF (fit to fly).

  15. Ambien, Vicodin, and a Valium right after the meal service. You’re out like a light for the rest of the flight.

  16. Flying isn’t enjoyable so people want to cheat the system by sleeping through it. I don’t blame them. I often fall asleep without taking anything.

  17. Are the pills provided in these examples prescribed by a doctor or bought to street dealers? Usually doctors prescribe pills to patients appropriate to needs, not morphine 45 grams or whatever…
    I really don’t understand people taking any medicine without assessing self effects…
    By the way if you are so cool in Qatar or UAE maybe you have 10 years holidays…

  18. I am really alarmed at the number of people to take drugs to sleep on a flight — and mixing their own drug cocktails– yikes!

  19. I can’t imagine being so incapacitated that the crew couldn’t wake me or I couldn’t board or deplane without difficulty not to mention the possible scenario if the plane had to make an emergency landing somewhere and I was dead to the world. I think it’s a scary thing if someone can’t be easily awakened outside of a hospital setting. All my trips are nearly 24 hours door to door and I manage a few catnaps on the long haul flights following dinner and a glass of wine. I don’t expect to sleep soundly for hours on end and surprisingly I’m fine at destination, working all day. Maybe in my case, comfortable rest is as good as sleep.

  20. A ticket is never wasted if you manage to sleep from take off to landing, no matter the recline, no matter the class. It’s like teleporting.

  21. @Sam – On all flights I tend to stay awake whether Asia or Europe. I’m more of a night owl so landing in Europe it usually feels like midnight to 2 AM to me so that’s why I try and sleep about 4-5 hours after I get to my destination. Those Asia flights are more difficult, but I tend to sleep as late as I can the evening before since I know I’ll be up for a very long time. It works for me, but not for most.

  22. James of course you are correct but you can also have a turn-back any time until the P.O.N.R. (Point Of No Return) and that could be 4 – 6 hours into the flight! Always good to have the passport and phone right there too, unless you’re on a ridiculous seat with no storage like the ancient Qantas Skybed thing in the A380. Having said, I do sleep OK on them, despite the footrest sag…..

  23. Guys – if you need these drugs for any reason, you have other issues in your life, whether personal or work related. Work out what they are and fix them. There are likely to be other effects from the underlying cause that will shorten your life unnecessarily. I write this as a retired individual who can now see clearly the folly of many former lifestyle / workstyle choices.

  24. Why the judgement if someone needs a little help sleeping? Like the folks so drunk they are about to pass out are going to be any better in a emergency?

  25. @Henry Young are you a licensed physician/psychiatrist, then if not keep you nonsense to yourself – anxiolytics are used for a variety of reasons and middle seat on a 19 hour coach flight is about a good a reason as any to lessen the anxiety, claustrophobia and initiate sleep. The whole world doesn’t have it all sorted like you seem to have but admittedly after making your own mistakes – in recovery are we??? There are appropriate dosage regimens tailored to individual needs and situations that most people adhere to – the cabin altitude/pressurization and perhaps a glass of wine etc are often compounding issues if a problem arises – but for the majority of sensible individuals, it’s better quality of life and travel through pharmacy.

  26. Funniest thing happened to my brother several years ago. He took a sleeping pill as he boarded a Delta flight from Tel Aviv to Atlanta (back in the day). Then he called his friend who was picking up and told him to watch the radar app and he would be in unless the plane went down. A little while later, the flight attendant came and got him. He thought he was being upgraded. NOT. He was escorted off the plane and interrogated by security in the “room with no windows”. Never really knew why but figured it was his stupid statement on the phone. And all this time, he’s about to fall asleep. He kept saying he was gonna miss the plane. Finally they put him in a golf cart and raced him back to the gate where the pilot was waiting for him. The pilot told My brother he was lucky because he used to be a marine and they never leave anyone behind. Lesson learned. Don’t take a sleeping pill early and don’t be stupid.

  27. You missed the big point here. Imagine the plane is taking off and makes a rejected take off due to a bird strike that caused fire in the engines or for any reason (remember the 787 batteries catching fire not long ago ? ) or the 777 from AA that evacuated on the runway ? How about the 330 from Transat that almost ditched on the ocean because of a fuel leak, or the more recent hudson river incident ? Good luck trying to evacuate a plane that ditched 2 minute after take off, is being filled with a lot of water, you can’t see the exits, have to deal with other passengers panicking and blocking your way, all this under the effects of a drug sleeping pill.

    Myself, I don’t even take my shoes off before the plane is airborne, just in case I have to evacuate the plane in a cold winter night, running away from fire, stepping over broken glasses.

    I am not exaggerating, this has happened many times during recent times.

    Dont drug yourself during a flight. flying is a beauty thing, is the most advance way of transport humans have ever developed. Study where you aircraft will fly over, try looking over the window, read a good book, 2 glasses of wine and you will wake up nice and fresh for your family or friends waiting on the other side. There is no need for that.

  28. @ James
    “A waste of a business class ticket!”

    For us common folk, yes. But Lucky has mentioned several times that some people pay for F just to sleep the whole flight… What a waste of Champagne.

  29. I took one on a flight from Dallas to London back in 2003. I was recently married and I was traveling with 2 other colleagues from Dallas to London, London to J’Burg, South Africa. I wanted my new bride to join me on this trip but she was unable due to work. The flight was on AA’s 777 in F-Class where you should have a passenger join you in your seat while you dined. Apparently, I joined one of my colleagues and gabbed her ear off for a good portion of the flight. I didn’t learn about this until landing and was panicked – thankfully, all I talked about was how in love I was with my new bride. On the return I had an overnight in London for business and I was at the hotel and again took an ambien an received a phone call from a customer and completed a contract negotiation. The next morning I emailed the customer requesting time with them to meet to finalize our contract negotiations. I learned that we had completed it the night before. I had not recollection. I was so worried I said something wrong or compromised the negotiations. The customer explained that I rattled through all sorts of complex items, agreed to some, held firm on others and we had a deal. I remember nothing. So in both cases, I was fully functional and had mental capabilities to even negotiate a contract, but don’t remember any of it.

  30. Last May I flew DME-LHR-MIA on BA. I was booked on the 05:45 flight out of DME so I decided to stay up all night to turn my body clock around rather than leave Moscow at 03:00 to go to DME. I got to DME around 01:00 and hung out in the S7 lounge, then the BA lounge. I boarded at 05:15 and took an Ambien. I was out cold before we took off. When I awakened, I knew something was wrong. I could tell we weren’t airborne. At first, I thought I was dead, then realized I wasn’t. I looked at my watch, it was 07:15. I realized I wasn’t getting to MIA that day. It turned out the cockpit windshield cracked when we were taxiing. That’s was a first for me at age 58. Thankfully we didn’t deplane for another hour and the pill had pretty much worn off. I spent the day at DME, flew on the next BA flight at 16:00. At LHR, BA put me up in some god-awful hotel that I had to take a bus to after a 45 minute wait. And, I was completely off since I expected to be another 5 hours back in time. UGH…

  31. I always have difficulty sleeping on planes, despite the 75,000+ miles I fly every year – even in first or business, sitting up or lying flat, it doesn’t matter. Being a light sleeper stinks, in general, but on a plane, it is the worst! I take Ambien from time to time on land, but I will not do it in the air – I have too much fear of waking up in the middle of something terrible happening and not knowing what’s going on or waking up to hearing police telling me that I was running up and down the aisles naked, scaring everyone on the plane. These drugs are hypnotics and they are powerful! All this being said, yesterday I took a redeye from BKK to ICN, then went ICN to YYZ, all in Y. Had an window exit seat on the first leg and an aisle bulkhead the second. It was my first time flying Korean and I was pleasantly surprised by the comfort and recline of their Y seating, not to mention that the crew seemed to know the perfect times for service. Granted, I was quite tired on the first leg, but I slept for 4 hours on that 5.5 hour leg; woke up as we were having breakfast and before I knew it, we were at Incheon. After a snack in the lounge I felt pretty great and was awake and refreshed for two movies and 2 hours of work on the next flight, which was about 12.5 hours. The seats on the 787-9 were even better than the previous flight’s (A380) and with about 6 hours to go, I went to sleep again for about 4.5 hours. While I credit the seat, the cabin comfort (wasn’t too hot or too cold), and the thoughtful crew, I think what really helped me sleep was the fact that I had no alcohol at any point on the journey. I had intentionally decided not to have anything to drink but water and fruit juice on these flights as I am only in Toronto for 48 hours before flying back to BKK and wanted to be as fresh as I could be while here; the older I get, the more booze tends to mess with my sleep, I’ve noticed, and I wanted to try to minimize the effects on my sleep, if possible. This was the first time in 35 years of flying I was able to get more than 3 hours of sleep on a plane (I only managed 1.5 hours on my flight from AUH to IAD a few years ago in J!). Granted, while awake I went to the loo every 45 minutes from all the water I was drinking to keep myself hydrated, but the sleep was worth it!

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