What happens when there’s an in-flight medical emergency

Flying can be a scary prospect for some people, even when they’re perfectly healthy. There’s always that “what if” voice in the back of your mind wondering what would happen if you, or a fellow passenger, were stricken with a medical emergency during the few hours you’re stuck mid-flight.


The good news is that you aren’t alone, and airlines take medical emergencies quite seriously. There are a number of precautions in place that can help to save lives during possible emergencies while in the air. If this is a fear of yours, read on to get the facts to ease your mind on your next flight.


1. Who (or what) Can Help

Airlines freely acknowledge that it isn’t an ideal situation for someone to get ill onboard a flight, so they have many procedures in place should the unthinkable occur. If someone passes out or becomes unresponsive, flight attendants are universally trained to administer basic first aid. There’s a standard medical kit on board, as well as a defibrillator for heart problems, and together those things can handle most medical issues. If there is a doctor or a registered nurse on board, they don’t legally have to volunteer to help during an emergency, but most do as an ethical obligation.

Now, if there isn’t a doctor on board your flight, and you start panicking that the flight attendants are far from medical professionals, there’s a program called STAT-MD available on most major airlines that provides medical ground support for airline personnel. If there’s a medical situation beyond the scope of the flight staff, life-saving employees at the University of Pittsburgh are available to walk attendants through the emergency; they can help the onboard staff to administer whatever treatment is necessary or make the suggestion that the pilot divert and land the plane in the event of a serious medical issue.


2. Common Emergencies

Even though your mind may be running wild with all of the crazy (and highly unlikely) things that could go wrong in your body while you’re 30,000 feet in the air, please know that true in-flight medical emergencies are rare. Heart attacks and cardiac arrest are not common occurrences on airplanes and statistically they actually only account for less than 1% of all in-flight medical issues. Most often, medical situations are merely dizziness or feeling light-headed, complaints of nausea or passengers suffering from low blood sugar; all of which can be remedied quickly by the airline staff.

More often than not, when passengers on a flight feel ill, it’s because they’re just dehydrated. If you’re worried about feeling sick on your next flight, keep water with you at all times to avoid dehydration. And again, if there is something else going on such as shortness of breath or chest pain, the airline staff can communicate directly with doctors on the ground to discuss the best course of action to treat the passenger properly.


3. What Happens if It’s Serious

If there is a true, life-threatening medical emergency on board, the airline staff have the right to move passengers’ seats in order to give the patient some room and apply whatever treatment may be required. In a worst case scenario, if a doctor or the team at STAT-MD deem it necessary, the plane may need to make an emergency landing in a different city to treat the patient immediately. Babies being born mid-flight and heart attacks are the top reasons planes need to be diverted, and if the personnel feel a life could be lost for whatever reason, they’ll do what’s best for the patient and land early.

In the extremely rare occasion of a death on board, the airline staff face different protocols depending on a variety of factors. The plane could be diverted, the passenger may be moved someplace more private such as the lavatory or the airline may just put a blanket over the deceased passenger until the plane lands at its original destination. But again, the chances of this happening are extremely rare. Most emergencies are treated promptly and result in the passenger making a full recovery thanks to the training of competent flight attendants and the STAT-MD team.

Kimberly Beard

Kim is the Retention Marketing Manager for ParkSleepFly.