Deaths On Board Aircraft

Death on board an aircraft is sudden, instantaneous and without warning.   One report says: “this type of loss can generate intense grief responses such as shock, anger, guilt, sudden depression, despair and hopelessness”. 

by Dr. Ruwantissa Abeyratne

If I should die,
And you should live,
And time should gurgle on,
And morn should beam,
And noon should burn,
As it has usual done… ~ 
Emily Dickinson

( January 17, 2017, Montreal, Sri Lanka Guardian) This is a morbid essay, as deaths occurring on board aircraft are extremely rare.  But they do happen.  They could be caused by circumstances aggravated by conditions prevailing in the cabin or they could occur as a result of an accident a person meets with on board.  Unlike deaths, accidents abound on board aircraft, which have resulted in a steady line of judicial decisions based on an international regime of treaty law covering international flights.

Recently, I read a poignant story related by a female cabin attendant who had noticed during flight an old female passenger silently weeping.  When the cabin attendant asked the passenger if everything was alright the latter had said: “my husband… he is gone”.  In the next seat was her 70-year-old husband who had gently passed away.  The cabin attendant placed the corpse in a resting position in his seat and placed a blanket over him which reached up to his neck.  To all purposes he looked as though he were asleep.  The attendant had then brought the grieving female passenger a hot cup of tea  who then had held her hand and related to her endearing memories of the life she had spent with her husband.  The cabin attendant had patiently listened.

The airline is liable to compensate such a loss only if damage sustained in the event of the death or wounding of a passenger is a result of an “accident” which takes place either on board the aircraft or in the course of any of the operations of embarking or disembarking.

In the context of deaths caused by conditions on board, arguably, the case of Olympic Airways v. Husain is a good example. Passengers Abid Hanson and his wife, Rubina Husain were passengers on Olympic Airways Flight 417, seated in the non-smoking section of the cabin upon their request, as Mr. Hanson suffered from acute cardiac asthma and was allergic to tobacco smoke.   However, they were located very close to the smoking section and smoke emanating from the smoking section clearly permeated the area where the couple were seated.   The couples request to be moved was denied by the flight crew, and because of the inhalation of smoke during the flight, Mr. Hanson died. The wife filed suit in a California federal district court seeking damages under applicable treaty law pertaining to international flight which allowed damages to be recovered by international air travelers for accidents that occur during a flight. Upholding this law, the  court ruled that Mr. Hanson’s death was an “accident” and awarded the wife $ 1.4 million. This ruling was upheld on appeal (filed by the respondent Olympic Airways) by the Court of Appeals.

In 2009 on board a Continental Airlines flight the 60-year-old captain had died of a suspected heart attack and two co-pilots took over the controls. The 247 passengers aboard did not learn what had happened until the flight from Brussels landed safely and was met by fire trucks, emergency vehicles and dozens of reporters.

Many (if not all) commercial airlines have practices that require their technical and cabin crews to treat medical emergencies and death on board with utmost care and afford every dignity to the passenger and his travelling companions in the event of a medical emergency or death.  In January 2016 the International Air Transport Association (IATA)  – which is the international association of airlines –  issued rules where  cabin crew should be trained to perform cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and should continue CPR until one of the following occurs: spontaneous breathing and circulation resume; or it becomes unsafe to continue CPR ( the event of heavy turbulence and/or forecasted difficult landing after liaising with the flight deck); or all rescuers are too exhausted to continue; or  the aircraft has landed and care is transferred to emergency medical services; or  the person is presumed dead.  The rules add that if CPR has been continued for 30 minutes or longer with no signs of life within this period, and no shocks advised by an on board Automated External Defibrillator (AED), the person may be presumed dead, and resuscitation ceased.    IATA adds that airlines may choose to specify additional criteria, depending upon the availability of ground to air medical support or an on board physician.

IATA also has a protocol for caring for passengers post mortem which requires the crew to advise the captain immediately as he/she will have to advise the destination airport using company protocol to make sure the proper authority meets the flight.  Next, the crew has to move the corpse to a seat – if available, one with few other passengers nearby.  If the aircraft is full, the corpse would have to be put back into his/her own seat, or at the crew’s discretion, into another area not obstructing an aisle or exit, all this with the utmost care, diligence and gentleness required to honor the dead and consideration for companions and others.  The corpse should be put in a body bag if such is available in the aircraft with the bag  zipped up to the neck and restrained with a seat belt or other equipment.

Travelling companions of the dead passenger should be requested for any useful information.  On arrival, passengers other than then dead passenger’s relatives and/or companions should be disembarked first.  The relatives and companions should stay with the body until ground staff arrive to render assistance. if a communicable disease is suspected, the applicable IATA communicable disease guidelines and Universal Precaution Kit (UPK) to handle the body should be followed.

Death on board an aircraft is sudden, instantaneous and without warning.   One report says: “this type of loss can generate intense grief responses such as shock, anger, guilt, sudden depression, despair and hopelessness”.  All this, 30,000 feet up in the air, often in darkness and amidst loneliness, far away from loved ones, with only the air crew to comfort the aggrieved.  It is in such instances that the cabin attendant would be, as Walter Scott said of woman: “when pain and anguish wring the brow, a ministering angel thou”.



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