Death Trap: What Really Happens When Someone Dies on a Plane


Sleeping or eternal slumber? You decide (Photo: Thinkstock)

It’s a scenario you hope will never happen on a flight: your seatmate suddenly nods off, his head on your shoulder. You try to shift. He won’t wake up. And then you discover: Your seatmate is dead.

It’s rare, but not as rare as you think.

“Interestingly, this happened to one of our fare analysts awhile back,” says George Hobica, of “She nudged him to ‘wake him up’ but he wouldn’t budge. You guessed it. Since the plane was full, there were no seats available to relocate the deceased. They called for a doctor, who pronounced him dead, and put a blanket over him.”

When Scott Mayerowitz, who covers the aviation industry for the Associated Press, was reporting a story about airport chaplains he heard the tale of a cursed flight from Johanessburg to Atlanta where two — count em, two — people died on the same plane. “When you think about how many millions of people fly every day, it’s bound to happen that someone will die on a plane,” he says. "But for two people to die on one flight is truly amazing.“

And as this story was going to press, a passenger died on an American Airlines flight scheduled from Lima to Miami.

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What happens when a fellow passenger dies? (Photo: Thinkstock)

The challenge is: what happens to the corpse? "It’s not Star Trek II, where they jettison Spock’s body. You can’t dump them in flight,” says aviation writer Joe Brancatelli.

And what about landing the plane? “They usually won’t divert a plane for a dead passenger, barring something phenomenal like ebola,” Brancatelli says. “Passengers will understand if there’s an illness, but dead is dead.”

The other issue facing the crew in a dead-end situation is that there aren’t many places to put the body — especially if all the seats are filled. “Ten years ago, when there were empty seats as a matter of routine, flight attendants would get a blanket to cover the deceased and move people around,” says Brancatelli.

These days, you just might find yourself sitting next to a corpse for the rest of the flight. A recent BBC documentary revealed that cabin crew are told not to put the body in the lavatory, but to keep the passenger in a seat. "If they slid off the toilet, they would end up on the floor,” an airline trainer told the BBC. “You would have to take the aircraft apart to get that person out.”

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And experts say that the rumor of certain aircraft types equipped with a “corpse cupboard” is just an urban legend.

Betty, author of Yahoo Travel’s Confessions of a Fed-Up Flight Attendant column, says she has been flying for 27 years and has only seen one passenger die: an elderly woman who was flying home with her son, a doctor. The woman passed away mid-flight, and it turned out Betty and all the other flight attendants were aware. “We had each realized what had happened and individually, without speaking a word to each other, had come to the same conclusion that it was best for the rest of the passengers and for the family to keep our mouths shut and let them return their dead mother to Mexico and grant her dying wish to return to her homeland.”

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Betty had compassion, but it’s not always that way. One commercial pilot, who wanted to remain anonymous, told Yahoo Travel: “No one technically ‘dies’ on the plane if the crew can at all help it” because then there would be “crazy paperwork and all kinds of red tape and the aircraft has to be grounded, a.k.a. a crime scene.” The crew brings the body to the tarmac and pronounces them dead there.

The other thing airlines don’t talk about is the number of dead bodies that are moved around as cargo. “Many people don’t die in places where they’d like to be buried,” said the Associated Press’s Mayerowitz. “When that happens, they tend to go as cargo in the belly of the planes.”

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Flight attendant Heather Poole, author of “Cruising Attitude: Tales of Crashpads, Crew Drama, and Crazy Passengers at 35,000 Feet,” says that some sneaky fliers have taken things a bit too far, including a Miami passenger who attempted to board a flight with his mother — who was dead and inside a garment bag. “Why would someone do such a thing?” asks Poole. ”Because it’s expensive — delivering a body on a flight can cost up to $5,000.”

Other airlines salute the dead. “Sadly, a lot of fallen military soldiers will come into the country and connect to their destination on domestic airlines,” says Mayerowitz.

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And it’s not just passengers who meet their maker mid-flight: in 2009, a 60 year-old Continental Airlines pilot had a heart attack and died in the cockpit. The passengers didn’t find out the fate of their captain until the co-pilots landed the plane.

Yet, no one could really answer the question that Brancatelli posed: “So now that the plane has landed, who’s first off the plane — the body or the passengers?”

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