- While it doesn’t happen often, people do die in-flight.
- Sheena Marie 25, a flight attendant and TikToker, told Insider what the crew does when this happens.
- In her experience, the body is usually left where it is.
It’s not something we like to think about, but it’s a reality nonetheless: People die on planes.
TikTok user Sheena Marie 25, 25, who wanted to keep her last name and employer anonymous, but which are both known to Insider, has worked as a flight attendant for two years.
She explained in a viral video, which has been viewed over 2.8 million times at the time of writing, what happens when someone dies on a plane.
Sheena explained that in her experience, dead passengers are usually left where they are
In the video, Sheena said 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.
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.
According to a previous Business Insider article, Singapore Airlines launched a now-retired fleet of Airbus A340-500 airliners that featured compartments that could store an average-size body, which apparently became known as “corpse cupboards.” However, no other planes are known to have such a space.
Airlines may all have slightly different protocols for dealing with a passenger death, but Sheena, who says she has worked for three airlines, said they’re all pretty similar, in her experience.
Once all passengers have deplaned, she said that medical professionals will come on board to examine the body, before they notify the deceased’s next of kin.
If there’s a chance of reviving a passenger, medical professionals are consulted, according to Sheena
Speaking to Insider, Sheena went into more detail about deaths on a plane.
She said that if there’s a chance of revival, crew members will ask whether there’s a medical professional onboard. She said that board-certified doctors are allowed to administer treatments.
“We have enough medical equipment on the plane to do surgery,” she said.
The cabin crew will also alert the pilot to the situation, who can contact MedLink, on-call doctors for airlines, should there be no medical professional on board. They will help walk the crew through what to do.
She also said that in her experience, once the crew has started doing CPR on a passenger, they can’t stop until medical professionals arrive. Because flight attendants aren’t medical professionals, they can’t legally pronounce someone dead.
“We have procedures in place to treat a passenger in medical distress,” Ross Feinstein, a spokesperson for American Airlines previously told Travel + Leisure. “Only a medical professional can pronounce someone deceased.”
If someone does die onboard an aircraft, Sheena says that it can cause planes to be taken out of service for investigation and cleaning. She said that sometimes carpets have to be removed and seats replaced.
The International Air Transport Association (IATA) has guidelines for what airlines should do in the event of an onboard death
According to the guidelines, if there’s a possibility of reviving the passenger, crew members should engage in CPR until the passenger is breathing again, until the plane has landed and the passenger can get professional care, or until the person is presumed dead.
Some caveats: CPR administration can be stopped if “all rescuers are too exhausted to continue,” and presuming a person dead can only happen after “CPR has been continued for 30 minutes or longer with no signs of life.”
However, the guidelines also state that “airlines may choose to specify additional criteria, depending upon the availability of ground to air medical support or an onboard physician.”
According to IATA, if the person is already presumed dead, crew members should let the captain know so that they can alert the destination to make appropriate arrangements.
As Sheena stated, IATA guidelines also say to move the deceased to a seat with fewer people nearby if possible or to leave them where they are if the flight is full.
The IATA adds that the crew should put the person in a body bag, depending on the airline, or cover them with a blanket up to the neck, and that they should restrain them with a seat belt or other equipment, and close their eyes.
It’s interesting to note that deaths or medical emergencies don’t seem to require an emergency landing or diversion. According to Sheena, the pilot has the last word on any decisions made in that regard, which they make together with air traffic control and MedLink.
Medical emergencies on flights are not too frequent, but they do happen
For a flight attendant like Sheena, who said she sometimes flies 10 routes per week, medical emergencies may feel like a frequent occurrence, but it’s not too common for the average flyer.
Dr. Claudia Zegans, associate medical director of Global Rescue, which offers crisis management services for travelers, told Conde Nast Traveler that “death onboard a commercial aircraft is actually quite rare,” adding that medical emergencies take place in around 1 in 600 flights, or 16 medical emergencies per one million passengers.
And of these in-flight medical emergencies, only 0.3% result in death, according to a New England Journal of Medicine study from 2013 that examined in-flight medical emergencies over the course of two years.