Disturbing Details Behind What Really Happens When a Passenger Dies Mid-Flight

American Airlines airplane taking off at Dallas - Ft Worth (DFW) Airport in Texas.
Have you ever wondered what happens if someone dies on a flight? | Aneese/iStock/Getty Images

There are more than enough “what-if’s” when it comes to flying. What if I get stuck next to a talker? What if the plane goes down? From the mundane to the totally morbid, you can drive yourself crazy just thinking about all the bad stuff that could potentially be on the horizon.

Aside from all the typical “what if’s,” have you ever wondered what really happens when a medical emergency occurs on board, 30,000 feet off the ground? Well, we have, which got us to thinking about passengers who take their last breath up in the air. Because yes, people really do die on airplanes.

With over 3 billion people flying each year, it’s bound to happen. But what happens next? If you’re as curious as we were, you’re in the right place. Here’s everything you need to know about in-flight passenger deaths.

There are no federal regulations surrounding mid-flight death protocol

Bet you thought there was a long list of standard operating procedures when this sort of thing happens, didn’t you? Well, you’re certainly not the only one. After all, a person dying mid-flight is a huge deal, so it’d make perfect sense to have stringent marching orders in existence, right? Wrong (we’ll explain why next).

There is one thing, however, that remains of utmost importance, no matter what the situation. As aviation consultant with the Brisco Group and Air Force Reserve Pilot, Richard Gonzalez, told Bravo, “What you will find universal across the aviation industry is an emphasis on respect for an individual who faced an untimely death.”

Next: Every situation is different.

It depends on the situation

airplane on runway
Whether the plane diverts or lands early depends on the circumstances. | Mohd Rasfan/AFP/Getty Images

Obviously, there’s no playbook to follow in this type of situation, because no two deaths are the same. And according to commercial airline pilot and author Patrick Smith, there are plenty of factors that come into play.

Whether a plane diverts for an early landing or continues on to its final destination all depends on myriad circumstances, Smith tells Business Insider. For example, the location of the flight and the events leading up to the passenger’s death are taken into account when a crew has to establish a plan of action for something like this.

Next: The flight crew is well-trained to handle emergencies. 

The decision is ultimately up to the flight crew

two pilots flying a plane
The crew has to assess what’s best. | MatusDuda/iStock/Getty Images

We know that airplane deaths are handled on a case-by-case basis, which means the decision is ultimately left to the flight crew. And the best a crew can do is assess the situation, and work together from there. “Generally, the flight crew and ground control will work together to come up with a plan of action that’s tailored to each specific situation,” Business Insider says.

Next: This is the first course of action when a medical emergency arises.

A flight attendant will see whether a doctor is on board

Stewardess talking to passenger
Finding a doctor would be a huge plus. | Ruben Ramos/iStock/Getty Images

Of course, there’s no way to guarantee each airplane has a doctor on board. But when an emergency does occur, and there happens to be a physician on board, it’s obviously a huge plus.

Not only can a doctor treat a passenger in need of medical attention, but he or she can assist the crew in making important decisions that will ultimately affect everyone on board. Furthermore, having a medical professional on board, should there actually be a death, is especially important for another reason: Only a medical professional can legally pronounce someone dead.

Next: Spoiler alert: The next fun fact is awfully morbid.   

Here’s what they do with the body

You probably won’t see what’s going on. | riskms/iStock/Getty Images

So, yeah … you just may be sitting next to a corpse. Don’t worry yet, though, because it’s highly unlikely. Here’s the deal.

If a passenger dies, the crew will try their hardest to store the body in a secluded area, such as an empty row or in first class if it’s mostly empty. Another option may be to place the body on the floor in the galley. But on a totally full plane with no space to spare? Well, then it gets a little morbid.

According to Travel + Leisure, “If there are no empty rows of seats, however, the passenger is simply secured in his or her current seat and covered with a blanket.” So, just think about that the next time you find yourself on a jam-packed flight.

Next: People who die mid-flight aren’t the only ones who get a spot on the plane.

Dead bodies are sometimes shipped in a plane’s cargo space

Airplane at Seattle Tacoma aiport
This is a common occurrence. | David_Johnson/iStock/Getty Images

This one’s not as disturbing as the previous point, but still, it’s something that not too many people are aware of. Even though someone didn’t die on your flight, that doesn’t mean there’s not a corpse tucked away underneath the plane. But don’t worry, because there are actual systems in place for this kind of thing.

“All the major airlines have operations dedicated to human remains transport,” Gonzalez says. “United calls their operation TrustUA, Delta uses the name Delta Cares, and American Airlines calls it TLC. With the help from international airline partners, U.S.-based airlines can fly human remains anywhere in the world.”

Next: Could an in-flight death happen to you? 

What are the chances of someone dying on your flight?

Couple talking on an airplane
It really doesn’t happen often. | DigitalVision/iStock/Getty Images

We couldn’t wrap this up before leaving you with some cold, hard facts. Because hey, we all want to know what our chances are, exactly, of being seated next to a human corpse.

Lucky for us, the chances are very, very slim. In fact, only about 0.3% of in-flight emergencies that occurred from 2008 and 2010 resulted in the death of a passenger. However, that was back when there were only 2.75 billion passengers flying every year, so we can’t guarantee the numbers haven’t risen since then — sorry.

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