When it comes to death and dying, there is a lot of morbid curiosity about what happens when people die in unusual places. One of the most unusual places to pass away is over 30,000 feet in the sky while on a plane. With billions of people flying every day, this is bound to happen occasionally.
So what happens when you die on an airplane? How is the body handled, and what does the crew do to keep other passengers comfortable in this situation? The reality is much less glamorous than TV shows and movies might have you believe.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- What Happens When Someone Dies of Natural Causes on a Plane?
- What Happens If Passengers Die in an Accident or Crash?
Several flight attendants have spoken out about this phenomenon on social media, putting an end to many of the rumors about what happens when someone dies in the sky. Not only does knowing the truth give you peace of mind when flying, but it also breaks down some of the barriers around death.
What Happens When Someone Dies of Natural Causes on a Plane?
With so many people flying each day, it’s not a huge surprise that some of those passengers might die of natural causes on a plane. Whether that individual had high blood pressure, a stroke, or another emergency medical condition isn’t always known until later. Still, each airline has its own policy and protocol for handling these emergencies.
One pilot shares his own experience with Business Insider, explaining that there are different practices depending on the situation. The most common problem is a medical emergency, like a heart attack. In this case, the pilot explains that the crew works with emergency medical personnel on the team to get care quickly.
If someone dies unexpectedly, the airline crew does their best to handle the body with care and respect while also being mindful of other passengers. If space allows, the crew moves the body to the back galley or an unaccompanied row of seats. The goal is to create space between the passengers and the deceased for privacy and their comfort.
Why do people die on planes?
There are a lot of reasons someone might die on a plane. These tragedies are rare, but they do happen. In most cases, these deaths are from natural causes that could have just as easily have happened off the plane.
In 2010 alone, according to the service MedAire which provides 24-hour support for more than 60 commercial airlines, there were over 19,000 calls about in-flight medical emergencies. Of these 19,000 calls, only 94 people died. The most common accidents are related to heart attacks, though any medical emergency can turn the flight into an emergency situation.
All planes have a large supply of medical equipment to handle a variety of situations. With the assistance of a medical professional on the ground, these accidents are handled with care and diligence. Still, it’s not always possible to prevent every death on an airplane.
How is the body handled on a crowded flight?
While it’s easy to see how the body might be relocated on a flight that isn’t full, what happens if the flight is crowded? In the case that there isn’t room to relocate the body, the crew gets more creative. For most airlines, this means covering the body in the seat.
Because this is a legitimate concern for many airlines, some have looked for innovative solutions. In 2014, Singapore Airlines created a new fleet of airliners with a compartment in the back of the plane that could hold an average-sized body. This compartment earned the nickname “corpse cupboard” for its hidden purpose.
Though this compartment would only be used in an emergency, it’s important to find solutions to this very real concern. Airlines are continuously working to find a way to balance the needs of both passengers and the deceased in these unusual situations.
What happens when the plane lands?
If the crew determined the passenger died, they will generally leave them be until the plane lands. The flight crew is not authorized to determine the cause of death or perform any complex medical exams, so it’s standard for them to leave the body be until they land.
Once landed, the passengers deplane as usual. When that’s complete, medical professionals board the plane and determine the next steps. This means safely transporting the body to the morgue and contacting the next-of-kin.
After the medical professionals remove the body, the plane is likely to be taken out of service for some time. The plane needs to be extensively cleaned and investigated. This usually requires the carpets to be removed and some seats replaced.
What Happens If Passengers Die in an Accident or Crash?
Most people have some level of fear around dying in a plane accident or crash. Various movies about death don’t help this. Unless the crash is minor or on the runway, death is very likely during a plane crash. That being said, plane accidents are very rare. Your odds of being in a plane crash are 1 in 11 million, so this isn’t something to be overly worried about.
However, if a crash does happen, first responders attend to the scene immediately. The emergency response crew searches for survivors and gives medical care when necessary. Local funeral directors are immediately called to assist with handling the bodies.
What happens to bodies during a plane crash?
One of the most common questions related to passengers dying in an accidental plane crash is what happens to the body? The good news is this usually means instant, painless death. Though movies and TV usually show the passengers struggling to free themselves, this is highly unlikely.
Whether there’s a sudden explosion or drop in air pressure, passengers should lose consciousness very quickly. Because the force of impact is so intense, most bodies are torn apart beyond recognition immediately. Additionally, after impact with the ground, there will likely be a fire causing even more damage.
While all of this understandably sounds scary, everyone will be unconscious way before this point. These are fast, merciful deaths that happen before passengers know what’s even going on. Unlike Hollywood depictions, they’re much less dramatic or drawn-out as they appear on the big screen.
How are bodies identified after a plane crash?
Investigators work closely with the funeral directors to help identify the deceased and reunite these bodies with their family members. Because funeral directors are such a large part of this process, some have come to be known as Air Disaster Funeral Coordinators since this role requires special considerations.
Unfortunately, unless the plane crashes “softly” at a speed under 150 mph, it’s difficult to identify bodies. Still, the response team works diligently to reunite deceased loved ones with families using other identifiers like clothing, jewelry, and so on.
What happens after the body has been identified?
From there, the family will make final arrangements on their loved one’s behalfs with the help of the funeral home. The airline generally covers all costs associated with the burial or cremation.
This can sometimes be a lengthy process, and there aren’t always a lot of remains to work with after a crash. This is a difficult situation for any funeral director to find themselves in, and it just goes to show the importance of death care in emergencies.
Understanding the Reality Behind Death on a Plane
Though dying on an airplane might sound like a nightmare, it’s less dramatic and scary than it sounds. Not only are flight crews trained to handle passenger’s deaths, but care is taken to protect their dignity in these final moments.
Similarly, the professionals trained to care for the dead after a plane crash know how to ensure the deceased are reunited with loved ones. Just as it’s hard to know what to say when someone dies unexpectedly, it’s also difficult to recognize that people die suddenly in unexpected places. While dying at 30,000 feet might not be ideal, there are far worse ways to go.
- Clark, Andrew. “Airlines’ new fleet includes a cupboard for corpses.” The Guardian. 10 May 2004. TheGuardian.com.
- Corwin, Miles and Ralph Frammolino. “Identifying Remains, Arranging Funerals: Gruesome Air Crash Duty Is Mortician’s Challenge.” Los Angeles Times. 13 December 1987. LAtimes.com.
- Haltiwanger, John. “The Odds of a Plane Crash Are One in 11 Million, Yet You’re Still Afraid.” Elite Daily. 2 October 2019. EliteDaily.com.
- Mahonen, Suvi. “Learning How We Die In A Plane Crash Helped Me Overcome My Fear of Flying.” Huffington Post. 20 March 2017. HuffingtonPost.com.
- Sood, Suemedha. “Death on a plane.” BBC. 6 January 2012. BBC.com.
- Zhang, Benjamin. “What happens when someone dies on a plane?” Business Insider. 8 April 2016. BusinessInsider.com.