What happens when a passenger dies on a flight

The death of a plane passenger is a sensitive situation.
The death of a plane passenger is a sensitive situation. Stuart McCall via Getty Images

The death of a traveller on a KLM flight from Amsterdam to Calgary Thursday has spurred questions on airline protocol when it comes to medical emergencies.

Passenger deaths on airplanes are more common than most people realize, according to travel expert Joe Brancatelli.

He said one thing airlines need to consider is whether to divert to a closer airport.

“When that person is alive and there’s a medical situation that needs to be assessed, the game is frankly much more precarious and you’ll have to go to a higher level of the airline,” he said, adding an airline officer would likely be consulted.

Listen below: What happens if a passenger dies mid-flight?

Story continues below advertisement

Brancatelli told News Talk 770’s Rob Breakenridge other factors to consider before turning around or diverting a plane involve the people on the plane and the timing of the incident.

“It depends on where we are in the flight … how many people are on board,” he said. “Let’s say you’ve left Calgary on the way to Vancouver; maybe you’re only 15 minutes into the flight and it might make sense to come back to Calgary. But it might also make sense to go on to Vancouver, simply because there’s other people waiting for that plane.”

He said in the case of a death, the crew will usually radio ahead to have the coroner, medical examiner or funeral home collect the body.

Brancatelli said the deceased passenger will often be left in their seat and other passengers will be asked to move. But that’s not always possible.

“If the plane is sold out, we have situations where there is simply is no choice… there’s nothing you can do but throw a blanket over them.”

He said moving the body to the bathroom or the galley could create problems for the staff and passengers.

“It’s a very tricky situation, there’s not a lot of real estate on even the widest of wide-body planes,” Brancatelli added Friday.

Story continues below advertisement

He said in the case of a medical emergency, airline crews are able to consult with MedLink, a service which allows them to speak with medical personnel. Sometimes there’s even a doctor on board who may be able to help.

A WestJet spokesperson said Thursday its crews would not typically divert the aircraft when someone dies.

“Depending on the situation, we would either move the deceased guest to the rear galley and close the curtains, or if there is space, move guests to other seats away from the deceased guest,” Robert Palmer told Global News.