According to Associated Press, an American Airlines flight was diverted to Houston Wednesday when a 25-year old passenger became ill and died on board. The flight was inbound from Brazil to Dallas. A homicide detective investigated the incident and does not believe any foul play was involved, though an autopsy is scheduled. The sad news brings up a common question. What happens when a passenger becomes ill and dies on a flight?
From my own experience as an international flight attendant, it happened once on a flight from Frankfurt to New York that originated in New Delhi. The passenger didn’t die on my watch, he died shortly after we landed. But technically, no passenger dies on a flight, death is recorded when the plane lands. It was a terrible situation for me and the passengers sitting nearby.
The passenger was visibly ill and not conscious. When I rifled through his luggage in hopes of finding clues—like medication or paperwork from a doctor – I found small vials of street drugs. He was smuggling drugs in a condom that he swallowed and the 1% breakage rule didn’t do him any favors.
At the time, the flight was over the Atlantic and destined for New York, so there was no option to divert or turn around. This is the first rule in similar circumstances; find the closest city to divert, just as the American Airlines crew did when they flew to Houston. According to the AP story, the Boeing 777 left Sao Paolo at 1:12 a.m. and landed in Houston at 6:34 a.m.,
The next step is for the crew to begin medical procedures and find out if anyone on board is a doctor or nurse. In the American Airline's recent case, there was a doctor on the flight. The American Airlines crew has at their disposal a defibrillator (on flights above a payload of 7,500 pounds) and the FAA requires all flight attendants to maintain CPR qualifications. Also, American Airlines has doctors on call 24 hours a day to help crews when medical emergencies arise.
If a passenger becomes ill, the crew will try to find a place for the passenger to lie down to give aid. If the passenger dies during the flight, the body may be moved to an empty seat or the crew rest area, strapped in and covered with a blanket or even a body bag. The crew will do their best to place the body out of view of the passengers. Newer airplanes have space elsewhere on the plane to store a body. Singapore Airlines A340-500, a long haul aircraft for 18-hour flights, has a compartment for just such cases.
Often when these tragedies occur, complaints follow by the family and passengers that not enough was done in response. Though the crew will do everything possible to keep the atmosphere calm, any flight attendant will tell you it’s a very difficult situation in any circumstance.
It is not certain exactly how many passengers die on flights or become ill enough to divert the flight. MedAire, a medical emergency consultant company that works with 60 global airlines, recorded 94 deaths in 2010 among the 19,000 calls for in-flight emergencies. MedAire receives nearly as many calls for pre-flight medical emergencies, 12,000 in 2010, in which passengers are removed from the plane before take off.
Flight attendants and airline medical experts agree that no situation is similar. In some cases, the passenger boards the plan when they are fully aware they are terminally ill and are determined to travel. Some are simply ill (not terminally ill) and travel anyway. While other illnesses and deaths are a complete surprise, as was the case for this young woman, Physicians advise that if you have a medical problem, carry all your medications with you with a print out of your condition, emergency contact information and wear appropriate medical bracelets to raise awareness of any health problems.
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