Here’s What Really Happens When Someone Dies on an Airplane

It’s something nobody wants to think about: What if you, or someone you know, has a medical emergency while on an airplane? The flight crew is extensively trained to handle emergencies, but in some cases, there is simply nothing more they can do.

Here’s what happens when a passenger dies mid-flight. And check out page 5 to find out what happens if the pilot dies while in the air.

The events leading up to the death play a role in how it’s handled

Annoyed pessanger on plane

When a passenger shows worrying symptoms, the crew decides how to proceed. | Digital Vision/Getty Images

Every death is different, and the events that lead up to it determine how it’s handled. For example, someone who shows signs of an illness might warrant an emergency landing. If the flight crew thinks the person can be saved, there would be no reason not to land the aircraft. But in some cases, the death is so sudden that nothing can be done, such as if someone chokes mid-flight. In that case, the plane might continue flying to its destination. Different airlines have different policies, but most incidents are handled case-by-case.

Next: The crew usually communicates with a specific team of medical professionals. 

In some cases, flight attendants communicate directly with a medical team

Flight attendant using the phone on an airplane

Flight crew will often call for medical support on the ground. | Thinkstock/Stockbyte/Getty Images

The flight crew is trained to handle emergencies without panicking. If an emergency strikes, some airlines allow the flight attendants to communicate directly with medical professionals. MedAire, a company that provides 24-hour medical support to more than 60 airlines worldwide, communicates with the flight crew from the ground. But not all airlines allow the flight attendants to directly speak with doctors. In some cases, the pilot and co-pilot are required to communicate with the flight crew. This could cause delays in giving the patient proper medical care.

Next: These are the steps taken once a passenger is deceased. 

If the passenger dies, the crew makes its best attempt to move the passenger away from others

checks the passengers' seats for forgotten items

The crew works fast to respectfully move the body away from the rest of the passengers. | ERIC BARADAT/AFP/Getty Images

Once the cabin crew determines the passenger has died, they do their best to store the body in a respectful way. If there is an open row of seats available, the crew will move the passenger to the open row to keep the passenger out of immediate view of the passengers. According to Business Insider, some airlines allow the deceased passenger to be moved to the floor of the galley at the back of the plane.

Next: Here’s what happens if there’s no empty space on the plane. 

If there is nowhere to move the deceased passenger, he or she must remain in their seat

Passengers watching movie in the airplane over the sea

In a full plane, the body may have to stay in its seat. | egdigital/Getty Images

On full flights, it is not always easy to find somewhere to store the body. In that case, the deceased passenger must remain in his or her seat. According to Business Insider, typically, the passenger will be covered up, and the flight crew will strap him or her to the seat to ensure there isn’t much movement during the rest of the flight.

Next: Here’s what happens if the pilot dies mid-flight. 

If the pilot dies, the co-captain takes over, and the flight may continue until the destination is reached

Pilots Sitting in the Cockpit

If a pilot dies, the copilot must step in. | Digital Vision/iStock/Getty Images

It’s rare, but it can happen. If the captain dies mid-flight, the co-captain will take over. Typically, if a pilot becomes unwell, the flight crew will try to revive him while the co-captain makes an emergency landing. But if it’s a situation where the pilot cannot be revived, the plane might just continue on to its destination. In one situation, a pilot died of a heart attack on a 2009 flight from Belgium to New Jersey. In this case, there was nowhere to make an emergency landing, and the two co-pilots continued to fly the plane without letting any passengers know what had happened.

Next: Some airlines have specific places to store a deceased body. 

Some airlines have compartments that can comfortably fit a deceased person

Airplane flying

Some planes have a “corpse cupboard.” | Den-belitsky/iStock/Getty Images

Singapore Airlines launched a model of planes in 2004 that had small compartments near the back by the exit doors. Business Insider reported the compartments were large enough to fit a body, should there ever be a need. It became morbidly known as the “corpse cupboard” although that was not the compartment’s original intention.

Next: Here’s how many people typically die mid-flight each year. 

In 2010, 94 people died mid-flight, based on MedAire’s statistics

Midflight deaths happen more often than you think. | Mora Valdes/iStock/Getty Images

While the FAA doesn’t keep specific statistics about deaths on airlines, MedAire, the medical company that aids in airline medical emergencies, reported that it received 19,000 emergency calls in 2010. Of those 19,000 calls, 94 people died from a mid-air medical emergency, according to BBC. But with nearly 40 million commercial flights taking place each year, it is clearly extremely rare for a passenger to die while flying.

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