What happens when a person dies during an airplane flight

Not all of us can die in our house while we sleep. So it’s no wonder that among the millions of travelers who take to the skies every day, some die in mid-flight. It’s not particularly pleasant to think about, but sometimes passengers die on board a plane. Although it is very rare, so do not worry unnecessarily about pessimism. This is what happens when a passenger dies during a flight.

What happens when a passenger dies in flight

All airlines have their own procedures for what happens if someone dies on their plane, but of course they are often quite reticent to talk about it. After all, death is a bit of a taboo, and in some cases the procedures can seem inelegant, so they’re kept secret.

In fact, there are few government regulations on what airlines must do if someone dies on board: there is no obligation to divert immediately, and airlines have a fairly wide margin to make sensible decisions. They are often made in conjunction with remote medical advice companies on the ground, medical professionals on board and the airline’s operations center, which will also assess the practicalities of the decision.


Contrary to urban legend, modern airplanes are not equipped with a so-called “body locker” in case a body needs to be hidden. Only one modern plane had a special locker in case of death on board: it was the Singapore Airlines Airbus A340-500, which used to make the longest flights in the world between Singapore and Newark. However, it has already been withdrawn.

Cabin crew are usually instructed to place the dead bodies in the free seats and not in the lavatories. In most cases, the body is covered with a blanket up to the neck and, if possible, is moved to an empty row. If this is not possible, the body will stay in its seat. So you may have to travel with a dead body for the rest of the flight.

Also, although the flight crews have first aid training, they are not made up of medical doctors, so they generally cannot declare the death of someone on board the plane.

If a doctor is present among the passengers on board he can do it, although most of the time this is done on the ground after landing because it is better in terms of bureaucracy.

Therefore, if a person has died and we ask the crew if the person is dead, they cannot confirm it. They can only tell us that she is apparently dead. For this reason, the blanket can only reach up to the neck, it cannot cover the face because technically the person is not dead and the airways must be left clear.

For example, “a woman sitting on an 11-hour flight from Frankfurt to Singapore stopped breathing on the last leg of the journey. The woman’s immediate neighbors were assigned new seats as she was tumbled across the row of seats. Once it was determined that nothing more could be done, they covered her body with a sheet (but not her face) and the flight continued as normal.”

In general, it is a rare occurrence. Even the most seasoned flight attendants will tell you that, in their decades of air travel, a passenger’s death can happen once, maybe twice, if they’re unlucky.


On a short flight, for example a couple of hours, the plane usually lands quickly, although there is not always an immediate emergency diversion to another airport. Sometimes it may make more sense for the plane to continue to its intended destination if it is carrying an especially heavy load, because the maximum landing weights for which planes are certified are often well below their maximum takeoff weight, which is usually accounted for. for the fuel used in the flight.

On long-haul flights, however, things get a bit more complicated. There are not a large number of places to divert to in the middle of the world’s oceans and it may take some time until a suitable diversion airport can be reached. Also, if the person is indeed dead, there are not a great number of things that the unexpected detour to another country can do to help the deceased and any family traveling with them.

In practical terms, it may make more sense for the plane to continue on to its intended destination – where the deceased and their family will presumably have visas and other necessary paperwork, where the airline will have staff, and where the family may have friends and relatives who can be of help – instead of landing in a third country where the airline may not even operate.

In general, airlines will do everything possible to support families during these types of incidents, and help with the repatriation of the remains of their loved ones.

Upon landing, the plane and its passengers may be quarantined while authorities carry out some initial medical checks to make sure there are no public health issues that need to be addressed. This usually includes checking that the passenger has not recently traveled to an area of particular concern (West Africa during Ebola virus disease outbreaks, for example). This can often be a concern if ground medical personnel board the plane wearing hazmat suits, but it is largely out of an abundance of caution.

In these cases, it is unlikely that your journey or your return home will be delayed: the main objective of these types of measures is to ensure that other passengers do not show symptoms of any illness, and to ensure that the authorities have detailed itineraries and contact information in case follow-up is needed.

Unfortunately, it is increasingly necessary to resort to this type of procedure when non-vaccinated people become ill with previously eliminated infectious diseases, such as measles or whooping cough, either on the flight or shortly thereafter during an infectious period.

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