Death on an Airplane

I was recently on a flight from PDX (Portland, OR) to ATL (Atlanta) that was diverted to  BNA (Nashville, TN) for a “medical emergency.” Upon landing in BNA, 5 police officers entered our plane, and a few minutes later, I saw a father and son walk off the plane, followed by the police officers carrying a body off the plane. I saw jeans and feet dangling from the end of what looked to be a white  bed sheet.

Here’s what was missing from this scene. No EMT (or medical personnel) entered our plane. As far as I could tell, no medical backboard (commonly used to prevent spinal injuries) or stretcher was used.

During the time we were on the ground in BNA, my husband went to the back of the plane to use the restroom. As he walked to the back of the plane, he passed a row of 3 empty seats and noticed one of the bathroom doors was broken with a small plastic bag on the bathroom floor.

We spent about 40 minutes on the ground in BNX and then our plane departed for Atlanta. In total, we were delayed about 1 hour. Amazing job by the Delta crew keeping all of the passengers calm and getting us to Atlanta so efficiently. Thank you Delta.

One of the passengers on my row quietly mentioned that he missed his connection, but he was super calm about it. As we disembarked the plane, I overheard another passenger say there was a heart attack on the plane.

I checked my local Atlanta news stations (CBS46, 11Alive, and WSBTV 2) for more information; I didn’t see any articles about it. I found 1 tweet:

This incident got me thinking, “How likely is death while flying on an airplane?”

Sadly, I don’t think this is my first airplane death. About 20 years ago, I was traveling internationally, and I over heard 2 flight attendants talking to each other. One asked, “Did that guy on our last flight die?” The other flight attendant calmly responded, “Yes, died on our flight.”

Is death a numbers game?

According to this article from 1988, in-flight deaths occur 0.31 per million passengers, extremely rare. Considering I’ve traveled 42 countries and 43 states, at some point, does that make me more likely to be on a plane with a mid-flight death?

Within the running community, sometimes the subject of death comes up as we hear news stories about runners dying at marathons. CNN reported (May 2019), a 22-year-old female died at the Cleveland marathon.

As runners, we try to keep an upbeat attitude about death, “When it’s your time, it’s your time,” but the truth is, we exercise to lower our chances for early death. It’s no secret that diet and exercise = longer lifespans. If you don’t believe me, check out Harvard Medical School’s 10 Tips for a Longer Life.

My friend, Mike Himelstein died at the age of 50 after completing a 446 mile hike across Spain (known as the El Camino). We followed along on his journey here: 

Someone who could hike 446 miles would be considered relatively healthy, and we were devastated when we learned of his untimely passing.

Does this mean that I’ll stop running marathons? Absolutely not.  The statistics are still in my favor and I’m fully aware I am citing outlier situations in this post.

Back to the original topic, in-flight medical emergencies that lead to death, what happens and how is it handled? As I mentioned earlier in this message, Delta crew on the flight that I was on handled the situation with dignity, discretion, and as efficiently as possible. Delta published their procedures on their website here: Sick at 30,000 feet: How Delta handles urgent medical needs on board.

Unfortunately, not all situations are handled as gracefully, and lawsuits may occur.  On April 18, 2018, parents of a 26-year-old military vet filed suit against American Airlines after the pilot refused to land the plane on a flight from Hawaii to Dallas, according to NYTimes.

In February 2018, American Airlines flight 1405 from NY to San Diego was diverted to Denver due to a passenger heart attack. This article praises the crew and pilot on how they handled the situation.

And still there are other articles about in-flight deaths, generally long international flights, where flight attendants have to find a place to store the body until landing. According to TripSavvy, “It’s rare that a flight is diverted to handle a passenger who had died.” Business Insider noted, “on crowded flights, there may not be room to relocate the deceased, at which point the corpse would be covered up and strapped into a seat.” Oliver Smith, The Telegraph reported, “It’s what we used to do many years ago – give them a vodka and tonic, a Daily Mail and eye-shades and they were like, they’re fine. We don’t do that [now].” Sounds like a Weekend at Bernie’s approach to me.

Caroline Dunn is an experienced marketing executive combining her natural leadership ability and engineering education in marketing communications, content marketing, social media, and product management. She has a proven track record in exceeding sales objectives, leading execution teams, and campaign management.

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