I’m an airline pilot – we have very strict and surprising rules for passengers who die on board
A veteran pilot has revealed the delicate and surprising situation that occurs when tragedy strikes on an airplane.
Doug Morris, a longtime Canadian captain, revealed what happens when a passenger dies in-flight and the complicated steps cabin crew must take.
The pilot has spent 35 years in the air, mostly on an Air Canada Dreamliner, but is now busy writing his memoir, This Is Your Captain Speaking – Stories from the Flight Deck.
The book is full of mysteries and idiosyncrasies of the profession, but also sheds light on the “extremely sensitive issue”: What happens when a life is lost mid-flight?
Morris writes, “Many believe planes are full of happy passengers who embark on a yearly pilgrimage to the all-inclusive meccas of the Caribbean.”
“But to be honest, many travel to attend funerals or seek medical treatment, and some are flying back to their roots to spend their final days.”
The veteran airman explains the death record, which begins with immediately contacting authorities about a “presumed death on board.”
Surprisingly, he revealed that the word “presumed” is used by many airports, which don’t necessarily consider deceased passengers to be dead until they’ve landed.
“Airports like London Heathrow assume the person has not died until the Port Authority doctor certifies death.
“Only a licensed physician can determine death; otherwise it is considered ‘obvious’,” he explains.
Meanwhile, Morris reveals how flight attendants are tasked with the arduous task of moving the body and tending to those who were seated near the deceased passenger.
He writes, “This is another part of their job where they excel as it is immensely stressful for everyone.”
And it brings with it a whole host of problems. “Passengers will be relocated where possible, but keep in mind that most flights are fully booked. Or, if possible, the body will be relocated.”
In the worst case, when neither option is available, “the body is covered with a blanket up to the neck, the seat is reclined, eye shields are used, the seat belt is fastened, and pillows are used for cushioning.”
The experienced pilot also points out that all cabin crew receive special training and all aircraft are equipped with oxygen and a defibrillator.
There is one consolation, however, Morris says. “There always seems to be a doctor (or highly qualified medical person) on board for all my medical situations.
“Maybe even three or more. Doctors travel safely to many conferences, luckily for the sick passengers and crew.”
The story doesn’t end there, however, as the International Air Transport Association sets a very strict post-landing protocol.
According to the rules, flight attendants must “first disembark other passengers and ensure that family members remain with the body”.
The body could not be disembarked “until the relevant local authority has arrived, who is taking care of the body and ground staff are available to assist family members”.
Will the flight continue if someone dies? Morris probably says no.
“I’ve diverted to a few locations on their recommendation, but I’ve also maintained the flight most of the time based on their expert opinions.”
Keeping the flight on track to its destination is “a salvation for everyone, because it’s not easy to pull over to the curb on an airliner.”