On the Way to Africa: Staying Healthy in the Air

With fewer people going to Africa now, the upcoming safari experience will be profound. But first you have to get there safe and in good health. Here is how to stay healthy on the plane.



This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see Africa without the crowds. As African countries ease up on Covid-19 travel restrictions, the first few months after the safari parks reopen will offer some of the best safari experiences ever imagined.  For the first time in decades, the world’s most popular and exquisite safari destinations are peaceful, uncrowded, and genuinely wild.  It wasn’t always that way. Until the pandemic-driven shutdown, some of the more popular safari reserves were getting too crowded. Once famous for wildlife and landscapes, they were beginning to be infamous for noise, overcrowding and obnoxious behavior. In the most popular places, a cheetah could hardly raise her head without a hoard of tourist-packed 4X4s screeching into her space. That has all changed for the better since the human world paused for Covid-19.  Now, reports from the field are describing a place rewilding, no cars, no planes, no noise, just lions roaring at night, birds in the morning, and wildebeest gnuing all day.  Africa’s landscape is returning to what it was generations ago. But that will not last long.

Exciting as it is, there is a challenge to seeing Africa now: you first have to get there. And getting there means lengthy hours of travel by plane while the pandemic is still with us. It is easy enough to social distance in Africa with the sun, fresh air, and wide-open spaces. But the long flight is a challenge. Even before the pandemic, international flights were a serious germ concern. Almost everyone has a story about vacation battles with colds, flu, and stomach trouble picked up on a crowded winter flight.  Now after Covid, many are tepid about boarding a flight.  But all that said, for the adventurous few, there are proven ways to steel oneself against viruses and germs on an airplane. Here are the techniques for staying healthy in the air.

  1. Pick a window seat and stay there. A study sponsored by Boeing and published in the National Academy of Sciences found that the window seat is the best location to avoid getting sick from fellow passengers. The window seat minimizes exposure to others. It’s the furthest away from the heavily trafficked aisles with people wandering back and forth, visiting, going to restrooms, and getting snacks from the galley. The aisle and middle seats are the closest to all this activity and the most exposed. Also, people in aisle seats naturally get up and move about more, exposing themselves to more people and making more contact with contaminated surfaces.  Aisle seats are the most exposed of all, placing passengers in physical contact with passersby and food carts. The perfect place to be would be a window seat in an exit row, socially distanced with room to stretch.
  2. Protect your hands and face at all times. Viruses can spread from touching contaminated surfaces and later rubbing the face, nose, mouth, or eyes. Face touching is unconscious and occurs on average 24 times per hour.  Minimize contact with high-touch surfaces from the time you leave home, pass through the airport, and until you arrive at your destination.  Carry several pairs of disposable nitrile gloves when working your way through an airport or other area where frequent surface contact is unavoidable.  When not wearing gloves, always wash with soap and water or use hand sanitizer of at least 60% alcohol after touching any surface.  Carry enough hand sanitizer to last the entire journey.  Needless to say, aircraft restrooms require added caution. Thoroughly wash with soap and water before departing (soap kills germs) and use a paper towel to open the door. Wash again with hand sanitizer as soon as you get back to your window seat.
  3. Sanitize your entire seating area. Not so long ago you would get sideway looks and a judgment of neurosis if you methodically scrubbed your seating area with a bleachy wipe.  Not anymore.  As soon as you get seated, don a pair of nitrile gloves, take out the sanitizing wipes, and go over the armrests, tray table, seatbelts, headrest, video console and anything else you might touch. Dispose of the gloves and wipes in the airsickness bag.
  4. Stay hydrated and if possible choose a newer aircraft. Dehydration can undermine the immune system making you more vulnerable to infection. Choose bottled water or soft drinks over alcohol and caffeine.  If your nose, mouth, or eyes become dry it is easier for viruses to come onboard. This is a problem on older aircraft where the pressurized air has low humidity levels that can dry out membranes. If you can, choose newer planes like the Boeing 787 Dreamliner and the Airbus A350. These have advanced pressurization technology that adjusts humidity to a healthier level.  Otherwise there are self-help measures for combating dry air including eye drops, saline spray, lip balm, and as mentioned below, wearing a face mask.
  5. Wear a face mask. For the foreseeable future,  face masks will likely be required, but if not required—wear one anyway. The general view is that while a mask may not protect from viruses it can stop the spread of viruses. So, if everyone is wearing a mask a sort of temporary herd immunity is created.  And the jury is still out on whether a mask might protect the wearer.

In addition to actions you can take, it is worth knowing that airlines are pulling out the stops to make a healthier flying environment. The major airlines have improved their cleaning protocols in response to the pandemic. High-touch areas like armrests, seatbelts, tray tables and door handles are rigorously sanitized with EPA approved disinfectants.  Check-in areas have been redesigned to maximize distances and all employees are wearing masks.  Some airlines have implemented fogging techniques between flights that disinfect every nook and cranny.

Unavoidably, this germophobic activity will make flying less pleasant and to some it might be unbearable. For others, myself included, the excitement of getting underway again and the chance to visit the great destinations without all the crowds will outweigh the inconvenience and discomfort.