While there are so very many questions you probably have about airplanes that you're afraid of actually learning the answers to, a single, intriguing topic might rise above the rest: death. Such as: What happens when someone dies on a plane? Or... are there really, as you've heard, corpses on the plane with you?
Well, let us walk you through this most unsettling (but fascinating) topic:
1. What happens if someone dies on a plane?
The first step that happens during a medical emergency up in the air is a call for a doctor — as you've seen in so many movies. Part of flight attendants' training includes what to do in this situation, so they’ll likely be the first ones to get into action mode. “Although flight attendants are trained to offer medical assistance in case of an emergency during a flight, it's nothing less than traumatic when a passenger dies in flight. I've never had a death during my flights, but at least two of my colleagues have suffered through the experience,” says Steffanie Rivers, a flight attendant and author.
If the medical professional can’t assist, is too late, or there’s no way to help the patient, a flight attendant is often left with his or her hands tied and will try to make a scary situation as comfortable as it can be for the cabin passengers. “Since only a medical professional can make a death declaration, crew members can not officially assert someone dead. If a doctor is on board, he or she can pronounce the person deceased. In either of these situations, the flight attendants will make every effort to humanely move the deceased to a more secluded part of the aircraft and respectfully cover the person,” aviation consultant with the Briscoe Group and Air Force Reserve Pilot, Richard Gonzales says.
Rivers notes this usually means that the flight attendant will sit the person in an upright position, buckled in and covered with a blanket, until the pilot can make a safe landing. “Most likely the pilot will divert to the nearest airport. But if it's determined the original destination is the closest airport crew members will try to keep other passengers from realizing someone has expired during their flight. It only takes one person to change the atmosphere on the plane,” she notes.
2. What happens when someone faces a life-or-death emergency in flight?
If there happens to be a doctor on the flight who is doing what he or she can to keep a sick person alive in this emergency situation, Gonzalez says that sometimes, pilots will be able to land the plane early. That being said, they have to weigh the safety of everyone onboard, sometimes making for a sticky, sad decision. “In any case where a person on board has died or is nearing death, the crew will make a judgment call on continuing the flight or rerouting to get medical attention sooner. Few hard rules exists on what a crew should do in this situation,” he explains. “When you look at the historical trend of this rare instance, you’ll find a mix between choosing to land at a closer airport and continuing on to the original destination with the deceased on board.”
3. How do airplanes transfer corpses?
Rivers says that most airlines will treat human remains just like any other cargo, especially when it’s transported under the plane, along with luggage and checked bags. That being said, if it’s happened on a flight you were on, you probably didn’t know you were riding with a deceased person under you. “Passengers don’t have to be notified if they're riding in the cabin with a corpse or that human remains are being shipped in the cargo bins underneath the plane. Frankly, bodies are shipped frequently on passenger planes. Airlines treat human remains like any other cargo they might ship: It must come from a reputable source who has shipped before and it has to be packaged according to guidelines,” Rivers explains.
Gonzalez adds that most airlines have a special program for those who need to get a loved one from their location of death to their final resting place, all with different names: “All the major airlines have operations dedicated to human remains transport. United calls their operation TrustUA, Delta uses the name Delta Cares, and American Airlines calls it TLC. With help from international airline partners, U.S.-based airlines can fly human remains anywhere in the world,” he notes.
4. What rules are in place to handle deaths and bodies?
There are no federal regulations regarding how to handle someone who has passed away on a plane, or unfortunately lost their life while traveling in a different place, and now has to be brought back to home. That being said, Gonzalez notes that generally speaking, it’s handled with care and the flight teams work directly with funeral homes to figure out flight plans, proper transportation and make sure everything is conducted as timely as possible.
“The airlines tend to stay vague with their respective policy and procedures on this delicate issue. Airlines give their crews discretion to handle a death on board," he notes. "What you will find universal across the aviation industry is an emphasis on respect for an individual who faced an untimely death."
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