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What happens when someone dies on a plane?

Australian Federal Police have to deal with bodies on planes regularly.
Australian Federal Police have to deal with bodies on planes regularly.

"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.

An Australian Federal Police officer told Ginger people die on planes ‘all the time’. Picture: AFP
An Australian Federal Police officer told Ginger people die on planes ‘all the time’. Picture: AFP

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.

Deaths on planes affect many people. Not only the family, but airline crew, passengers, and the police who are called when it occurs. Picture: AFP
Deaths on planes affect many people. Not only the family, but airline crew, passengers, and the police who are called when it occurs. Picture: AFP

Frank then sat with the deceased woman's son for quite a while and talked with him.

"There's a lot of compassion there, not only from cabin crew and pilots but also the ground staff involved and [airport] management too because, you know, it affects everyone," he explains.

Scott Caulfield, a member of the Australian Federal Police's (AFP) airport operations team, was the acting officer in charge at Perth Airport. In the years Scott has been stationed there, he estimated there had been approximately 25 deaths.

Mr Caulfield said the airline industry, operators and the police worked together "as efficiently and with as much compassion as possible."

"We get paid to ... do a job on behalf of the best interest of the coroner and the family [of the deceased]," he said.

"It's a very controlled environment for such a traumatic experience from a procedural point of view," Mr Caulfield continued. "It is basically a crime scene until we establish otherwise, at that stage. So everyone is asked to stay seated on the plane by the crew.

"We board the plane, speak to the crew, go down to where the person is located on the plane and assess the situation and also then speak to the relevant family members or friends or witnesses … We normally have an ambulance come and attend to just confirm the person is deceased," he explained.

Although he declined to detail individual cases, he said some parts of the job could pose extra challenges.

Firstly, it could be daunting for police officers to walk on to a plane and have hundreds of passengers' eyes starring at them "and they've gone through the experience of this trauma with everyone else seated very close by."

Secondly, on planes - like on land - people often go to the bathroom when they feel unwell. If they then die in the plane toilet, preserving their dignity can be tricky.

"Sometimes the airline staff aren't always able to remove them from the toilet [while the plane is flying] given the circumstances of where they've passed away," Mr Caulfield said.

Dr. Tony Bartone, vice president of Australian Medical Association, pointed out that " the depressurisation of the cabin that occurs when we fly essentially makes the amount of oxygen that we can get into our tissues less."

He said this was just like if you were up a high mountain or skiing at high altitude.

"It does put a strain, it does put a challenge on your cardiovascular and respiratory system," Dr Bartone explained.

"The other thing to remember is with that drop in oxygen pressure … you'll feel foggier, more drowsy, less alert than you might otherwise.

"You're in an environment that's pretty dry and you become dehydrated which also impacts on your cardiovascular [system] as well as your circulation."

Drinking alcohol while airborne, Dr Bartone said, could add to the problem because it compounds the dehydration.

"The message is that if you do have underlying medical conditions, you really do need to get yourself to your doctor ... to basically get the clearance to fly," he said.

In 2014, Dr Bartone assisted during an in-flight emergency on a domestic flight. He noted that some of his AMA colleagues had offered similar in-flight medical assistance multiple times.

"We have an ethical or you might say moral responsibility to try and provide care to the best of our ability should the situation occur," he said.

Emma, like many other medical professionals, was called upon to help out during a medical emergency on a plane. Picture: Ginger Gorman.
Emma, like many other medical professionals, was called upon to help out during a medical emergency on a plane. Picture: Ginger Gorman.

Four years ago Emma, 45, a registered nurse and midwife, was on a Virgin flight from Los Angeles to Sydney when all the flight's electronics went off. Then came the call for medical assistance over the loudspeaker. She walked to the front of the plane.

"It was obvious that there was someone lying on the floor. I could tell it was female, and the crew were doing CPR on her," Emma recalled. "She was just lying down in the galley."

Emma introduced herself and became part of the team trying to assist the stricken woman.

"I was pretty nervous but the adrenaline kicked in, as it always does when you go to an unforeseen event," she said. "Your training takes over and I could see that the crew was very well trained. They knew exactly what they were doing ... it was very calm. Even the family were very calm."

Due to the lady's position in the galley "absolutely nobody could see, which was really lovely so that her privacy and dignity was upheld," Emma said. "They just closed the curtains and no one was coming through.

"She passed away. They resuscitated her for 40 minutes, which if I remember rightly, was the policy of that airline. The pilot made that final decision. The family wanted the resuscitation stopped.

"They [the crew] were just able to position her in First Class on a bed with her family there. I think it was her son and her daughter-in-law with her, so they just moved people away and everyone was very respectful.

"I spent a lot of time afterwards with the family, just talking about her life," Emma said. "As sad as it was, she'd obviously had a very good life."

Ginger Gorman is an award-winning print and radio journalist. Follow her on Twitter @GingerGorman or support her work on Patreon.

Topics:  airlines death editors picks fatality plane


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