What Happens When Someone Dies on a Plane?

by SharonKurheg

Singapore Airlines flight SQ321, scheduled to fly from London to Singapore last week, was not a typical flight. The plane encountered “sudden extreme turbulence” over the Irrawaddy Basin over Myanmar. Flight Radar 24 suggests that the plane went from an altitude of 37,000 feet to roughly 31,000 feet in just a few minutes.

There were 211 passengers and 18 crew members aboard the flight. Of those, dozens were injured with maladies as tragic as spinal injuries and brain and skull injuries. Worst of all, a 73-year-old Brit named Geoff Kitchen passed away due to the severe movement of the plane.

Obviously, turbulence that would cause massive injuries and even death is very rare (although the type of turbulence that hit flight SQ321 appears to be increasing due to climate change). Which isn’t to say that deaths don’t happen on aircraft. Unfortunately, people die from medical emergencies on planes on a somewhat frequent basis – about once per month or so, according to a 2013 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

What happens when someone dies on a plane?

a flight attendant looking at a man lying on a plane

Photo is AI generated

I’ve read stories here and there about the medical interventions airline workers, as well as “medical personnel who happened to be patients on the flight,” have done to try to save someone on the flight who was in medical distress. I’ve even read stories here and there about how a fellow passenger died on a plane (there was a huge thread about it on Reddit about 6 months ago. Heads up for adult language and situations).

Mostly I’ve read such stories from the fellow passenger’s point of view. They say it was scary. Creepy. Sad. I’ve read that planes/airlines usually don’t do any sort of emergency landing, and often keep the deceased in their seat, covered over with a blanket.

But I was always curious about the situation from an “official” point of view. What protocols are the flight attendants and other personnel on the plane supposed to follow?

Here’s what I found out

IATA’s Protocols

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) does indeed have guidelines for Death on Board, and each airline does have its own protocols based on those (you won’t find those individual protocols online via a simple search engine, by the way. I checked).

Generally speaking, IATA goes into:

  • When to stop CPR (because they started breathing on their own, it’s not safe to continue CPR because of turbulence, etc., everyone is too exhausted to continue, the plane has landed and care is transferred to EMTs, or the person is presumed dead [and they have protocols for that last one, as well])
  • Dealing with someone who is presumed dead (advise the pilot, move the person into a seat, put them into a body bag or cover with a blanket[but only up to the neck], restrain with a seatbelt, close their eyes, get the person’s contact info.
  • Disembarkation (keep family with the deceased, disembark the rest of the plane first, don’t disembark the body until authorities are there to accept, etc.)

Interestingly, it’s rare that someone is “declared” dead on a plane; they’re only “presumed” dead. The reason for this is that only certain medical personnel can declare someone dead, and flight crew don’t have that authority.

U.S. Government’s Protocols

The U.S. Code of Federal Regulations [42 CFR 70.11 and 71.21] requires reporting to CDC deaths and illnesses that occur on domestic flights between U.S. states and territories, and on international flights arriving in the United States. They explain what the pilot and cabin crew are to do, not only in terms of reporting to the CDC, but, more importantly, the protocols if the deceased was known to have a communicable disease.

Huffington Post’s description

Admittedly, the Huffington Post is more than a little clickbaity. But what it may lack in being eligible for journalism awards ;-), it makes up for in being “real” and easy to understand. Reading something like that is much more interesting to some people than the dryness of other publications.

Anyway, here’s their recent take on “What happens if someone dies on a plane.”

Fly safe and be well.

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