My wife, Tammy, was flying from Sydney, Australia, to Los Angeles this week after dropping my daughter off to study aboard at the University of Tasmania when a passenger two rows in front of her died. The decedent’s wife told the flight attendants that he had taken two sleeping pills and she couldn’t wake him up. Two doctors tried to revive him with an AED but to no avail. The crew wrapped his body in plastic, secured it with duct tape, and moved the body into the forward galley area. His death occurred about 3 hours into the 14-hour flight and plane flight continued to LAX uninterrupted.
It was a horrible and tragic situation, not to mention tough for my wife and other passengers sitting near him and really disturbing for the crew. (Tammy was shaken by the situation, but is okay. She said the flight crew was amazing in a tough situation.) And the decedent’s wife had to sit there for the remaining 11 hours of the flight. I can’t even comprehend how hard that had to be for her.
One flight attendant told my wife that in 38 years of flying, she’d never had a passenger die on one of her flights. That raises the question — how common is it for a passenger to die on a commercial airplane flight?
While there is some data on this topic, the information about inflight medical emergencies and deaths is sketchy. The FAA does not keep track of inflight deaths, and the airlines don’t officially report incidents either. With that caveat in mind, below is the available data.
International Air Travel Association Study
The International Air Travel Association examined records of 120 airlines from 1977 – 1984. Forty-two of the airlines reported deaths during those eight years. They found:
- A total of 577 in-flight deaths were recorded, for a reported average of 72 deaths per year. Deaths occurred at average rates of one per 3.2 million passengers, 125 per billion passenger-kilometers, and 25.1 per million departures.
- The majority of those who died were men (66%, 382/577) and middle-aged (mean age, 53.8 years).
- Most of the individuals (77%, 399/515) reported no health problems prior to travel.
- Physicians aboard the aircrafts offered medical assistance for 43% (247/577) of the deaths.
- More than half of the deaths (56%, 326/577) seemed to be related to cardiac problems.
- Sudden unexpected cardiac death was the cause of death in 63% (253/399) of the apparently healthy people and seems to be the major cause of death during air travel.
The rate of one death per 3.2 million passengers means that passenger deaths are rare. The 25.1 deaths per million departures translate into about one death per every 40,000 flights.
New England Journal of Medicine Study
A 2013 study in the New England Journal of Medicine “reviewed records of in-flight medical emergency calls from five domestic and international airlines to a physician-directed medical communications center from January 1, 2008, through October 31, 2010.” The researchers found:
- The medical call center received 11,920 calls over the period that served 744 million passengers across 7.2 million flights.
- There was 1 in-flight medical emergency per 604 flights.
- There were 36 deaths, 0.3% of reported medical emergencies, and just about one death per month.
Thirty-six deaths across 7.2 million flights equate to a death every 200,000 flights. This is 5x less than what was found in the IATA study discussed above.
Chicago Tribune Analysis
In 1996 the Chicago Tribune dug into how many people die on airplanes. Their report noted, “The only federal study ever conducted–which is acknowledged by its authors to be grievously flawed– reported an average of three in-flight medical emergencies a day aboard U.S. airlines, two or three emergency landings a week, and just 16 deaths a year.” But the Tribune said those numbers are way too low.
The Tribune gathered data from a number of domestic and foreign carriers and concluded that “there may be more than 700 emergency medical landings in this country each year, more than 12,000 in-flight medical emergencies, and somewhere between 114 and 360 medical deaths, not counting those passengers who get sick on an airplane and die after reaching the hospital.”
Three hundred sixty deaths per year over US skies translates into a death about every 45,000 flights — similar to the IATA data.
What Do Airlines Do With the Bodies?
My wife was surprised that the flight continued after the passenger died. But it turns out that is normally what airlines do. According to Dr. Claudia Zegans, associate medical director of Global Rescue, which focuses on medical emergencies while traveling, a death on a plane doesn’t require an emergency landing or diversion.
“There is no mandate to alter the flight path in the event of a death in flight. The pilot must follow certain notification regulations, depending on the country and jurisdiction of the destination airport, as well as company protocol.” Typically, the pilot won’t specify that there’s been a death, but rather a medical emergency; if pilots decide not to divert, the cabin crew will be tasked with handling the body in the interim. The focus is always on dignity: The corpse might be moved to a crew rest area, or even to first class, where there’s likely to be more space, in the form of a spare seat, where the body can be discreetly placed. IATA spokesperson Perry Flint says that tales of corpses left in their own seat, perhaps covered with a blanket with oxygen mask in place to suggest sleep, are commonplace; there is no data, however, to suggest it as widespread practice, nor would a body ever be hidden in the bathroom—another misconception.
Dr. Zegan’s conclusion is confirmed by a now-deleted Tik Tok by a flight attendant named Sheena, who said that it’s 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. Sheena said flight attendants will take a person’s pulse to confirm that they have died before trying to move the body to the last row of the plane, if there’s room.
If there’s no room anywhere else on the plane, the deceased passenger may be left where they are until the flight lands, covered in a blanket, according to the TikToker. Sheena added that the bodies need to be buckled in or strapped in for safety.