What Happens When Someone Dies on a Plane?

October 23, 2017

“I’VE got to go,” the affable policeman told me, “there’s a body on a plane.”

Last year my laptop was taken at Sydney Airport. I missed my flight home and found myself reporting the missing computer to a police officer — the bloke I just mentioned — from the AFP’s Airport Operations team.

He took down all the relevant details and meanwhile, a voice began rapidly blaring through the officer’s personal radio. Someone had died on recently arrived plane.

Witnessing my surprise, the policeman smiled politely and said: “Oh it happens all the time.”

The officer then turned and quickly paced away from me towards the waiting aircraft, its crew and the dead passenger. Within a few seconds, his blue uniform had disappeared into the crowd.

I stared after him for a moment: It. Happens. All. The. Time.

How often is “all the time”? Finding out information about people dying on planes isn’t that easy. None of the airlines are thrilled about admitting people pass away on their aircraft. Put simply, it’s bad for business.

However, a confidential government source supplied data to news.com.au indicating approximately 34 people have died on international and domestic flights landing in Australia since 2014. That’s nearly one person a month.

While the airlines may not be willing to talk on the record about their procedures, long-time Qantas employee Frank (not his real name) was only too happy to chat. As a customer service director, his role encompasses the welfare of all the passengers and the crew. In short: “Any dramas onboard the airplane.”

Twice in his career, which has spanned more than three decades, people have died onboard his aircraft. One of those deaths occurred a few years after joining Qantas.

Frank went to serve an elderly man breakfast, and the man’s son coolly said: “My father will not be wanting anything. He’s passed on.”

Even all these years later, Frank recollects the moment with a smattering of disbelief: “I thought he said ‘passed out,’ like, you know, he’s asleep.”

It turned out the man had died during the night — hours earlier — but his family didn’t bother to tell Qantas staff.

“Rigor mortis hadn’t set in but he’d obviously been dead for quite a while,” Frank says.

Fortunately the flight was quite empty. No one was sitting in front or behind the deceased man. In compliance with the family’s wishes, Frank and his colleague “basically just left him there … we strapped him in and put a blanket over him.”

“If it [the aircraft] was full … you’d have to move the body somewhere or move passengers away. It’s just one of those things — it’s delicate. You’ve just got to think on your feet and work it out on the day.

“You’re dealing with people and you’re trying to reassure people and … trying to keep people calm,” he says.

Frank stressed that airline staff were highly trained professionals and the lines of command were clear. In an emergency, he said: “You just get on and you do it.”

“The first thing you want to do is just to assess it and then just try and find a doctor on board,” he said, “Generally speaking, there’s always someone with some medical training on board.”

Even when there wasn’t, the airline’s staff is regularly trained in first aid — including how to do CPR and use a defibrillator.

A few years ago, Frank experienced his second midair death. An elderly woman passed away and her body was moved into a section of business class with few passengers.

“We just kept going [flying] until we got to Sydney, because there was nothing more we could do,” he said.

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