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Here’s What Really Happens When Someone Dies on an Airplane

Here’s What Really Happens When Someone Dies on an Airplane

Flight crews are trained to handle emergency situations. But that doesn’t mean that they can handle anything that comes up—including sudden medical attention. So what happens if someone (including the pilot) dies while in the air? The Cheat Sheet explains.

How the death occurs plays a big role in how it is handled. Signs of illness may cause an emergency landing, if it seems that the person can be saved. In other cases, if the death is more sudden, such as choking, then the plane will likely continue to its destination.

Depending on the airline, the flight crew may be able to communicate with medical care on the ground. In fact, one company has medical professionals that talk with airlines. But different airlines have different policies on the subject, which can cause delays in medical attention.

If a passenger does pass away on a flight, the crew will do their best to isolate the body from other passengers. This might mean moving the deceased to an empty row or even to the floor of the galley, depending on the airline’s policy. On full flights, moving the body isn’t feasible and so the passenger will have to remain in their seat. In these instances, the crew will cover the body and restrain them to eliminate as much movement as possible.

Should a pilot die while in-flight, a copilot will take over and the plane will continue to the destination.

Some airlines have a cubby space that is big enough to stow a body, although that is not the original intention of the space.

The FAA doesn’t keep stats for the number of passengers that die in-flight but MedAire, the medical company that aids in airline medical emergencies, reported that of the tens of millions of calls they received in 2010, 94 resulted in deaths.

View Comments (3)


  1. HomerJay

    May 13, 2018 at 9:45 am

    “Should a pilot die while in-flight, a copilot will take over and the plane will continue to the destination.”

    Yes, and no. It MAY continue to the original destination. but the co-pilot may divert to a closer destination for any number of reasons.

  2. davidsfo

    May 13, 2018 at 11:40 am

    If a pilot dies in the air, the flight doesn’t continue to its destination… must land at the nearest suitable airport

  3. TMOliver

    May 14, 2018 at 4:43 pm

    Ahhh, so old that my experience is mostly nautical, I always thought that the cabin crew stuffed the departed away in a convenient lav (with an “Out of Service” placard) At sea, the great liners could provide temporary repose in one of the ship’s reefers, well-wrapped between the ribeyes and the lobster tails. In the “Haze grey and underway” world of navies, foreign and domestic,, the drill involves the ship’s “Sailmaker”, a senior Bosun’s Mate, charged with enshrouding the deceased in canvas(with an inert gun projectile between his/her knees (a “sinker”), after the traditional “Last Stitch” through the nose to insure that the departed has actually departed. The USN uses a “Burial at Sea” service drawn form the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer.

    These days, the traditional “Last Stitch” may be but legend….

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