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From O’Hare to Eternity – if Your Time Comes at 35,000 Feet

CORRECTS BYLINE NAME TO ANNA McCONNAUGHY- In this Sunday, March 19, 2017 photo, a flight attendant holds a snake found on a Ravn Alaska flight between Aniak, Alaska and Anchorage. The snake escaped from a passenger on a previous flight. The flight attendant captured the reptile and placed it in a trash bag and stowed it in an overhead luggage compartment. (Anna McConnaughy via AP)

Flight attendants like me have to be prepared for whatever curveballs are presented to us on a daily basis – and there are many of them. Delays, difficult passengers, would-be Mile High club joiners…you name it, we’ve seen it (and I guarantee you I’ve got loads of things you could never possibly dream up covered as well). But how about those passengers who are particularly difficult – to wake up?

Yes, death is inevitable, and when your time’s up, you’re time’s up. And, for some, that might happen to be while watching The Devil Wears Prada and coaxing the last few drops of red wine into your plastic cup from its tiny bottle and fighting your neighbor for an additional half inch of armrest real estate. I’m grateful to say that in my 16 year-long career, I have not experienced a death inflight, but I can’t imagine that before I retire that I’ll be able to say the same. We all deal with medical emergencies of some type onboard and are trained to handle many different situations, but we aren’t doctors, nor do we have a choice in when someone’s final departure time comes about.

Medical emergencies take all different shapes – most often loss of consciousness/fainting, followed by respiratory problems, nausea and vomiting, and stomach pain. Most of these aren’t life or death issues and are usually fairly easily stabilized, but especially if someone is unconscious, there’s no telling what direction things are going to go and we must respond as such. First, and most importantly, of the tools we have available to us are other passengers – any doctors, nurses or medical professionals who are willing to assist. In order to know how to proceed, it’s most beneficial to have someone with medical experience to recognize all the symptoms in person in order to know how to treat them.

Second is MedAire, which is a call center used by most airlines around the world to offer assistance to airline crews in addressing an active situation, from the relatively benign to the potentially fatal. MedAire is staffed 24/7 with doctors who can direct us in how to proceed with an onboard emergency. Their direction is vital, and they can also instruct us on how to use certain medical equipment on the aircraft. We all are trained on the basic tools – AEDs, supplemental oxygen and our general first aid kits, for example – but there are more tools we can not use unless under the explicit instruction of MedAire (or a doctor onboard decides to use them). This usually includes IV medicines and other equipment that is more advanced, but not deemed impossible for someone without medical training to administer without help.

So now let’s say these avenues have failed, and the passenger is still not responding…what then?

There are a lot of factors to keep in mind when making a call like this. Many times this will, of course, result in a diversion to the nearest airport to remove the person and continue life-saving procedures, especially if the emergency takes place on a domestic flight. But what then if your Granny heads home from a wild weekend in Amsterdam, and halfway over the Atlantic she ends up taking a really big nap?

Well, for starters, if you’re in the US and waiting for her to arrive back home, you certainly wouldn’t want the plane to divert just to then have to pick her up from Iceland if she’s already pretty obviously gone, right? So for the sake of all onboard, including Granny, the flight will almost definitely continue to the destination airport, or at the very least stateside, where navigating laws and procedures regarding such things is much more easily done.

And the body? Well, there are no official directives as to where to put them in the cabin once life-saving procedures are deemed futile, but out of respect and to prevent anyone from getting stuck, the lavatories are off-limits. An empty first or business class seat is preferable, but if the flight is full, it might just mean the person goes back in their seat.

So, yes…this does mean you could one day have to sit next to a corpse on a plane, though highly unlikely.

Once placed there, the crew will do whatever they can to both be respectful and not make a spectacle of the whole thing – maybe a blanket over the head, or go for the gusto and place a drink on the tray with a newspaper and a cocktail to make things look a little more lively. When I went through initial flight attendant training, we were always told to describe the passenger as “resting comfortably” – we would not, if possible, want to share the details of the passenger’s condition with looky-loos. “He’s just ‘resting comfortably’, sir.”

And, in fact, no one ever dies on a plane! It simply doesn’t happen – they’re all ‘resting comfortably’! Besides the fact that you really don’t want me to have the authority to declare someone dead (oops, sorry!), it is honestly a load of paperwork and legal trouble for the airline for even a medical professional to officially to do so onboard an aircraft, so declaring someone officially dead is not done until the person has been removed from the aircraft.

The chances of your seatmate dying is happily (for them especially!) quite low. Of all the medical emergencies that occur onboard, only .3% result in the person dying. Great odds, but not impossible. That’s something to think about next time the person next to you starts regaling you with the details of his family tree as you make a desperate attempt to drift off into a much-needed nap on your next flight…perhaps it could be worse?

[Photo: Anna McConnaughy/AP]

Comments are Closed.
kamaaina October 27, 2018

I worked on contract with the US Public Health Service when a foreign air carrier landed with a possible death at a US airport. Upon boarding we found the passenger was laid out in the rear area just before the galley. No one was administering CPR; could be someone already determined the passenger was past saving. The boarding EMT's quickly transported the unresponsive passenger just outside the boarding gate than commenced CPR to no avail. The dead passenger was then draped in a blanket while disembarking passengers walked by. While it was upsetting for some passengers and crew to view the covered body, the death needed to be confirmed and documented by police officials before being take to the morgue.

Okto October 24, 2018

"I have not experienced a death inflight, but I can’t imagine that before I retire that I’ll be able to say the same." As long as it's not your own...

rubystone October 21, 2018

In the death certificate: Cause of death: Trying modern aviation, eating airline food, looked at airline add-on pricing chart, flying United...

tiharoa October 17, 2018

Wasn't this more or less the plot of "Boston" in Cabine Pressure?