Sarah Buitendach Contributing editor at FM
Picture: GALLO IMAGES
Picture: GALLO IMAGES

Two weeks ago, I took my first long-haul flight since the coronavirus hit.

Now, despite what your gung-ho mates say, there is a real Covid risk to being in a sealed-off airborne tube for an extended period. 

To determine just how nervous I legitimately should be, I did some preflight research — and figured to save you having to do the same, I’d share the findings.

First, all decent aircraft today are fitted with Hepa filters, but even they can only do so much. 

As a recent Deutsche Welle article explains, “these filters are designed to retain 99.95% of airborne particles of a wide variety of sizes, greatly reducing the risk of infection”.

However, the article continues, “experts say that air circulation and filtration systems alone cannot completely protect against infection. Hepa filters can only clean particles that reach it.” 

So, to avoid the dodgy particles that the filters miss, there is really only one thing for it: you have to be a resolute mask wearer. 

It’s nice to imagine that spacing between seats will help, but that isn’t happening all that much in economy class these days. In business class, you’re definitely better off. But either way, wearing a good mask, for as much of the trip as you can handle, is the essential bit. 

A “good mask” means something like the KN95 kind that filters and protects properly. They aren’t wildly comfy, but needs must. Needless to say, if you wear it hovering ambivalently below your nose, that won’t help. Airlines advocate that you change your mask every four hours.

Some in-the-know types even shy away from eating or drinking on a flight to avoid an uncovered nose and mouth. This is, of course, easier said than done, especially if there’s a glass of merlot at hand. So, be practical about how you do it. If those around you have their masks off, try to wait a bit. 

Qatar leads the pack

One small, economy-class toilet-sized respite is that you probably don’t have to stress about maniacally disinfecting armrests and anything else you touch every few minutes. 

The US Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) recently said the risk of catching Covid from surfaces is “generally considered to be very low”. As Business  Insider explains, “contact with a contaminated surface has a less than one in 10,000 chance to lead to infection”.

And even if there was a virus carrier on the previous flight, planes are routinely cleaned between long journeys. 

That said, some airlines are safer to fly, Covid-wise, than others. 

While we basically have no international flights landing in SA right now, there are a few still doing the run. They and other big passenger carriers have just been sized up in a new Skytrax Covid airline safety rating.  Skytrax, the UK brand, evaluated “over 190 safety and hygiene protocols introduced by airlines during Covid to enhance customer and staff safety, including standards of social distancing, efficacy of cleaning systems across both the airport and onboard environments, and all associated measures to enhance hygiene protection”.

Of the six airlines that got a five-star rating, the only one still flying into SA is Qatar Airways. Turkish Airlines, Lufthansa, Air France and KLM scored four.

Egyptair got a three-star rating and brands like Ethiopian Airlines and Kenyan Airlines weren’t vetted. 

As far as airports which South Africans might transit through are concerned, only Istanbul’s impressive new international airport and Doha’s Hamad International Airport got top marks. The ghost town that is OR Tambo International, and its spectral Cape Town sister, were not considered. 

Ratings aside, some people just aren’t fussed about Covid and flying at all. Usually, until they land up with the virus.

On my flight, the cabin crew kept having to instruct passengers to please put on their masks (it is mandatory). One gentleman in my vicinity was admonished constantly for removing his mask, while a stroppy lady who said she hated having her nose covered got numerous stern warnings too. 

As it turned out, someone on board had tested positive for Covid, so we were contacted later in a track-and-trace effort. 

I, who wore my mask religiously, got lucky and my Covid tests came back negative. But I’d love to know how the other two fared. 

* Buitendach is contributing editor at the FM

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