Travel: Death on a plane

I was listening to the BBC World Service last week, to a clip that came from a programme they produced some time ago on British Airlines called ‘A very British Airline’ which gave some insight into how a flight crew copes with passengers dying inside the aircraft during flight.

Given the huge numbers of people or all ages and physical health who fly, death on a plane from natural causes is a statistical reality, grim though the thought may be.

The first rule for corpse management during flight is not to drag the corpse into the lavatories. “You cannot put a dead passenger in the toilet,” a lead trainer at the airline said in the interview. “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. Imagine putting someone in the aircraft toilet?!”

That insight obviously came after a corpse was put in the toilets and rigor mortis set in – hence the warning about having to dismantle a plane to get a body removed….and given that it was British Airline in the exposé, there had to be an angle where that very British sense of humour was revealed.

Back in the glamourous British Airlines heyday of the 70’s, death on a plane was dealt with by moving the corpse up to the first class section, placing a vodka and tonic in front of them along with a copy of the Daily Mail and eye shades and informing other passengers the deceased was actually fine, just a little tired. Of course you can imagine the British to be too polite to ask otherwise.

That obviously doesn’t happen anymore. Wherever possible the corpse is moved to the least crowded area of the plane – definitely not the galley or aisles – strapped into a seat and covered with a blanket. Some airlines have gone further and installed ‘corpse cupboards’ in aircraft to deal with the situation. Practical yes, but very morbid as well.

In 2013 the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) published a study of in-flight medical emergencies involving large commercial airlines. The results showed that around 11,920 in-flight medical emergencies occurred from an estimated 744 million airline passengers during the study period, for a rate of 16 medical emergencies per 1 million passengers. Or putting into another metric, for the 7,198,118 flights reviewed, there was an incidence of 1 in-flight medical emergency per 604 flights.

And the mortality rate from all of the study on medical emergencies? Well, the NEJM report revealed that 36 unfortunates out of 744 million passengers were definitely not going to be using their air miles again – that’s a ratio of 0.00000005% deaths in the sample survey, which really is surprisingly few.

So the very next time that stranger in the seat beside you seems uninterested in the safety announcement, in-flight movie, the meal or conversation, you may consider yourself statistically unlucky to be sitting next to an even more statistically unlucky fellow traveller.

Sources: BBC, nejm.org