From takeoff to landing, everything about my recent flight from Los Angeles to London went smoothly. The service right from the gate made it abundantly clear that the cabin crew knew what they were doing.
But, as we approached Heathrow, a look of sheer panic seemed to grow over each and every one of the crew member’s faces. Then, the captain came over the intercom to explain that a medical emergency had taken place onboard and that we’d be stopped on the runway in order to quickly meet with paramedics. He asked passengers for their patience.
Toward the back of the plane a passenger had experienced a catastrophic incident, which of course was not shared with guests onboard as to not violate the passenger’s privacy and to keep others from panicking. When paramedics arrived the man had to be laid out in a stretcher towards the front of the plane. Meanwhile, the back half of the plane was asked to disembark through the rear door. The paramedics and crew members worked diligently on the passenger, using shock paddles and rounds of manual CPR in an attempt to revive him.
About 15 minutes into this heartbreaking process, passengers onboard the front half of the plane were asked to disembark, walking past the man and paramedics. With eyes averted, again as to not disrespect the passenger or the paramedics, we quietly walked by, later thanking the crew for their efforts. Though the airline was unable to confirm whether or not the passenger was revived for privacy reasons, it was clear that the crew had systems in place to attempt to handle this type of emergency.
An estimated 3 billion people take to the skies each and every year. And while deaths in the air are rare, they aren’t completely unheard of. However, it’s important to note that while the FAA doesn’t have any official regulations in place for when a passenger dies, each airline does have their individual procedures ready.
"Considering the sheer volume of people who fly every day and the growing number of elderly people who fly, I'm surprised it doesn't actually happen more often," Patrick Smith, a commercial airline pilot, told Business Insider.
As Smith explained, there is no across-the-board protocol that all airlines must follow in the event of a medical emergency or death. Instead, that decision is left up to the pilots and crew.
"Decisions such as whether the flight should divert are handled on a case-to-case basis," he said. He added that the decision to divert a plane due to an emergency comes down to several factors including the location of the plane at the time of the emergency, the condition of the passenger, and what options are available to the crew.
“We have procedures in place to treat a passenger in medical distress,” Ross Feinstein, a spokesperson from American Airlines previously told Travel + Leisure in an email, noting, “Only a medical professional can pronounce someone deceased.”
As for what the crew can do to help save a passenger in mid-air, Feinstein explained: “At American, we will utilize our medical kits onboard, and contact medical personnel on the ground, for further assistance.”
“Our flight attendants are trained in assisting a customer in need of medical assistance,” he added.
Cindy Hermosillo, a spokesperson for Southwest, additionally explained to Travel + Leisure: “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.”
The one thing all airlines ensure is that the person’s body is treated with the utmost respect while the flight is still in the air.
“It is important to move the body to a place where you can lay it flat. Invariably, this will be the rear galley as it is usually larger than the other galleys,” Maximilian van Vliet, a former flight purser and cabin crew safety trainer, explained on Quora. “On some aircraft with first class suites and flat beds, they could be a viable alternative, but only if the body will be out of view from other passengers.”
As van Vliet further explained, the crew will close the passenger’s eyes and make sure the person’s body is in a private location.
It’s an unfortunate and incredibly rare event, but deaths on planes can of course happen. At least it’s a comfort to know that crew members across all airlines are ready and willing to do what takes to try and save a passenger’s life. And if they can’t, they truly attempt to ensure someone’s last moments are dignified and respectful.