In-Flight Emergencies and Passenger Safety

Medical emergencies can happen anywhere, at any time. While most people feel completely safe within the confines of an airplane, that does not mean that the rules of biology pause while passengers cruise through the air at 30,000 feet. Indeed, medical emergencies can and do happen with regularity.

On October 4th, 2015, American Flight 550 departed Phoenix airport at noon on its way to Boston. However, nearing the end of the flight, the captain became seriously ill and the Flight Safety Officer made the determination to divert the flight to Syracuse airport. The pilot’s illness was actually a heart attack and he died in flight prior the aircraft arriving in Syracuse.

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In-Flight Emergencies and Passenger Safety

Since 1994, 7 pilots have died in flight, and approximately 100 passengers die per year. While deaths are relatively rare compared to the number of passengers flying every year, they can and do happen. And, while flight attendants and crew are trained in basic CPR, flights are not always equipped with defibrillators and other medical equipment to handle serious emergencies. Further, to help minimize the risk of a pilot dying on a flight, all pilots age 40 or older are required to pass a physical every six months.

For this reason, airlines rely on companies such as MedAire. The company provides medical advice to pilots and crews facing medical emergencies during flights and estimates that they receive up to 19,000 calls per year. During these calls, MedAire helps crews assess medical situations and provides instructions on triage treatment as necessary. If MedAire believes the emergency to be serious enough based on information the crew provides, they will recommend a nearby airport the plane can divert to so the passenger or crew member may receive prompt treatment. They also notify the area hospital of the nature of the emergency so that the passenger may be treated in the ambulance on the way to the hospital.

An airplane injury attorney will often divide in-flight emergencies, as well as passenger and crew deaths into three categories. Those that are unexpected, such as heart attacks and strokes. Those that are expected, such as those of terminally ill patients traveling for medical treatment. And, deaths that occur when passengers are ill and advised not to travel by their physician, but do so anyway.

While modern aircraft are highly sophisticated and capable of flying should a pilot or co-pilot become incapacitated, that does not mean that they are pilotless. Indeed, the need for a pilot is imperative which is why airlines require the pilot and co-pilot be fully competent in the management and operation of the aircraft. In the case of American Airlines Flight 550, the co-pilot was able to take over the airplane and land it safely. After arrival, passengers were transferred to another flight to continue on to Boston.

Legally, the airlines have a responsibility to ensure passenger safety on flights. In the Code of Federal Regulations, 49 CFR 830.2 requires airlines to notify the NTSB if there is an accident of in-flight emergency resulting in physical injury or death. Under the terms of the regulation, this includes any injury that requires hospitalization of more than 48 hours, an injury that results in the fracturing of a bone (fingers, toes, and noses exempted,) or an injury that results in severe hemorrhage or nerve, muscle, or tendon damage. Further, if any internal organs are involved, or if burns are suffered affecting more than 5% of the surface area of the body, then these must be reported as well. If a passenger has suffered an in-flight emergency, a copy of these reports should also be filed with their airplane injury attorney.

Furthermore, under 49 USC 44703, it is the responsibility of the Federal Air Surgeon to set the standards that determine whether or not a pilot possesses the sound mind and body to operate an aircraft. These standards are rigorously determined by authorized medical examiners to ensure that aircraft do not crash as the result of a pilot becoming incapacitated, or deliberately being crashed by a mentally ill pilot as was the case in the Germanwings flight 9525 which crashed near Nice, France in March, 2015.

As can be expected, US regulations do not apply to international flights or flights that originate abroad heading towards a US destination. Indeed, the regulations regulatory agencies abroad require their airlines to follow can vary widely. In order to help reduce these discrepancies and provide a layer of protection for passengers, the FAA administers the International Aviation Safety Assessment program.

The IASA determines whether a foreign country’s carriers can comply with US standards. Airlines operating from foreign countries may be denied permission to operate within US airspace if they do not. Thus, the IASA program is used to to ensure that even on international flights there are basic safety requirements and protocols in place should an in-flight emergency occur.