If you’re a medical professional on a flight, it’s probably crossed your mind that you may be called to assist in a health emergency, should one arise.
However, for regular passengers, it’s probably never crossed your mind that you may be sitting next to a corpse should a medical emergency arise and, sadly, meet the worst eventuality.
According to a study in the New England Journal of Medicine, one in every 600 flights experience a medical issue while flying high in the sky.
While this is typically fainting, respiratory problems, heart trouble, nausea or vomiting, in 0.3% of cases, an in-flight emergency will result in death.
Contrary to what one might expect, the pilot is not required to make an emergency landing.
In fact, besides the requirement to report the incident properly, there are no hard-or-face regulations for what a pilot and crew should do in such cases.
Planes are kitted out with emergency equipment, such as a defibrillator, and flight attendants undergo first aid training qualifying them to complete CPR.
However, when that all fails to prevent a death, the focus shifts to trying to maintain a sense of normality, even if that means leaving the corpse in its seat.
TikTok user Sheena Marie 25 has worked as a flight attendant for two years and explained in a viral video what happens when someone dies on a plane.
While a medical emergency is not super likely for the average traveller, for crew members who do as many as ten routes a week, it is a far more real possibility.
Viewed by more than 2.8million people, Sheena says it is not uncommon for dead passengers to be left where they are.
“If they have a heart attack and die, and there is nothing we can do about it, and we can’t start CPR, we are just going to wait until we get to our final destination,” she said in the video.
Despite the urban myth of bodies being put in lavatories, Sheena said this doesn’t happen because the body can’t be safely strapped in there.
The International Air Transport Association (IATA), an industry group representing aviation companies, has issued the following guidelines for when a passenger becomes unconscious.
It recommends that flight crew attempt CPR on the passenger for at least 30 minutes unless prevented from doing so by turbulence or other obstacles.
Any doctors on board will also be requested to assist at the scene.
This is not only to have their assistance but also because a physician is the only person who can legally declare someone dead.
Without a doctor’s says, a continually unconscious, unbreathing, unresponsive passenger is only presumed dead.
According to the guidelines, the crew should immediately notify the cockpit about the status of the emergency so that the captain can arrange to be met with appropriate authorities on landing the plane.
Whether the passenger is presumed or declared dead, it is often decided that there is no point in landing or diverting the plane from its original course.
After all, what good would that do at this point?
However, according to Sheena, the pilot has the last word on any decisions made in that regard, which are often made in consultation with air traffic control and MedAire’s MedLink service.
Instead, the IATA guidelines advise moving the body to a seat with “few other passengers nearby,” such as in business class or a row with empty seats.
When a plane is full, however, IATA says crew members should “put the [dead] person back into his/her own seat” in an upright position, using the seatbelt or other restraining equipment to hold the body in place.
“Close the eyes, and cover the body with a blanket up to the neck,” IATA advises, “if a body bag is not available.”