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In-flight deaths remain shrouded in mystery.

Jess McHugh
March 03, 2017

As any frequent traveler might note, there are a whole host of air passengers that you don't want to get stuck next to: a crying baby, an overly talkative octogenarian, or a queasy first-time flier.

One type that few have experienced is more macabre: a dead passenger.

With approximately 3 billion passengers in the sky each year, the odds of someone dying on a plane are low but not zero.

Airlines all have slightly different protocols for what to do in the case of a passenger death, and those regulations also vary depending on the circumstances of death.

Airlines tend to remain vague on their exact protocol surrounding onboard deaths.

“We have procedures in place to treat a passenger in medical distress,” Ross Feinstein, a spokesperson from American Airlines told T+L in an email, noting, “Only a medical professional can pronounce someone deceased.”

And that last detail is an important one: Technically only a doctor or licensed medical professional can pronounce someone dead, meaning no one officially dies in the air (unless a doctor is on board, presumably).

“At American, we will utilize our medical kits onboard, and contact medical personnel on the ground, for further assistance,” Feinstein said. “Our flight attendants are trained in assisting a customer in need of medical assistance.”

Spokespeople from JetBlue and Southwest Airlines made similar comments concerning emergency medical care without giving any specifics on post-mortem protocol.

“Flight Attendants utilize several resources including communicating with medical professionals on the ground (through a radio or satellite connection) or enlisting assistance from credentialed medical personnel who coincidentally may be traveling on that flight,” Cindy Hermosillo, a spokesperson for Southwest, told T+L via email.

If a passenger dies mid-flight, the flight crew will attempt to confirm the death by checking vital signs, but no announcement is made, Quartz reported. The dead body is then moved to an empty row of seats, strapped in, and usually covered with a blanket. If there are no empty rows of seats, however, the passenger is simply secured in his or her current seat and covered with a blanket.

Singapore Airlines used to operate a line of Airbus that had a compartment specifically designed to store a dead body, according to a Guardian report, but those planes have since been taking out of use.

Storing a corpse in a bathroom is not an option, according to a 2014 BBC documentary.

“You cannot put a dead passenger in the toilet,” an instructor for British Airways told trainees. “It’s not respectful and [the corpse] is not strapped in for landing. If they slid off the toilet, they would end up on the floor. You would have to take the aircraft apart to get that person out.”

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