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“When a Passenger Passes Away Mid-Flight: Insights from a Pilot”


I’m a Pilot, and Here’s What Happens When a Passenger Dies in Flight — and Why It’s a ‘Presumed Death’ Until the Plane Lands

Unfortunately, sometimes deaths can occur at 38,000 feet, leaving flight attendants the difficult job of caring for the dead body.

But what are the exact steps cabin crew should take if a passenger dies in flight? Veteran Air Canada Dreamliner captain Doug Morris offers insight, noting that it’s an “extremely sensitive topic.”

In his fascinating book This is your captain speaking (ECW press), Morris says he’s only seen a passenger die on a flight once in 35 years of flying.

He writes, “Many think planes are filled with merry passengers who make annual pilgrimages to all-inclusive Caribbean meccas.

“But the truth is that many travel to attend funerals or seek medical treatment, and some fly back to their roots to live out their last days.”

Veteran Air Canada Dreamliner captain Doug Morris explains what happens when passengers die mid-flight

If it is suspected that a passenger has died, cabin crew must ‘contact authorities immediately about a ‘suspected death on board,'” he reveals.

He explains why the crew says the death is ‘presumed’, saying: ‘Airports such as London Heathrow will assume the person has not died until the Port Authority doctor has confirmed the death. Only a licensed physician can pronounce death; otherwise it is considered “apparent.”

Meanwhile, flight attendants will begin tending to the body and passengers who sat next to the deceased flyer. Morris says, “This is yet another part of their job where they pull out all the stops because it’s extremely stressful for everyone.”

What actions should flight attendants take? He says: ‘Passengers will be displaced if possible, but remember that most flights are full. Or, if possible, the body is moved.

“The body is covered with a blanket up to the neck, the chair is reclined, eye shadows are used, the seat belt is fastened, and pillows are used for padding.”

Flight attendants are also an integral part of operations once the aircraft has landed.

Veteran Air Canada Dreamliner Captain Doug Morris

This Is Your Captain Speaking (ECW Press) is out now

Pictured at left is Air Canada Dreamliner Captain Doug Morris. This is your captain speaking (ECW press) is now out

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) notes that flight attendants should “disembark other passengers first and ensure that the relatives remain with the body” once the plane has landed.

The IATA adds that cabin crew cannot disembark the body “until the appropriate local authorities arrive to care for the body and ground crews are available to assist the family members.”

Morris explains in his book that all crew members receive medical training and that to help passengers badly, planes are stocked with medical kits that include a defibrillator and portable oxygen.

Fortunately, there is a good chance that a doctor is on board. Morris adds: ‘For all my medical situations, there always seems to be a doctor (or highly trained doctor) on board. Maybe even three or more. Doctors certainly travel to many conferences, fortunately for the sick passengers and crew.’

Morris reveals that the decision of whether or not to divert the plane due to a medical emergency is made by a company called Medlink, which offers “in-flight emergency medical consultations.”

“I’ve diverted to a few places on their recommendation, but I’ve also let the flight go through most of the time, based on their expert findings,” he says, adding that “the service is a savior for everyone because there’s nothing easy about it “stopping on the side of the road” in an airplane’.

Click to order a copy of This Is Your Captain Speaking here.

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