Here’s What Happens if You Give Birth on an Airplane
Former pilots and aviation lawyers weigh in.
The flight is yet another routine trip from Los Angeles to New York, until a young woman begins to scream. She is in labor. Panic sets in as the flight attendants rush to her side, calling out for a doctor or anyone with medical experience to assist. From the chaos emerges a retired nurse, who gathers around the mother and begins to calm her down. The nurse shouts for various items from the cabin crew, but mostly utilizes her training and instincts to safely deliver a newborn. The baby’s cries pierce throughout the aircraft, and everyone relaxes, knowing the worst is over.
And... end scene.
If this sounds like something you’d be more likely to witness in a dramatic film than in real life, you’re spot on. It’s rather rare to give birth on a plane, but when it does happen, it tends to end up all over the news. These unusual birth stories might have you wondering what exactly does happen when someone goes into labor on board an aircraft—not the dramatic movie version, but the real-life details. I spoke to practicing aviation attorneys and experienced pilots to get some answers to burning questions about in-flight childbirth.
How often are children born on airplanes?
Not often. According to Dan Bubb, a professor and former pilot with two decades of experience, he has only witnessed inflight births twice in his career. This is likely primarily because most airlines have policies disallowing travel for pregnant women after 36 weeks.
“Some airlines might allow women up to 38th week of pregnancy, but would require a ‘Fit to Travel’ Certificate from a doctor issued less than 24 to 48 hours prior to flight to confirm that a woman is in good health to travel,” explains Anton Radchenko, an aviation attorney with 11 years of experience in international aviation law. “However,” he adds, “other airlines have more stringent requirements restricting flying after 34th week.”
If you’re planning to fly while pregnant, you should carry your medical records on your phone in case of an emergency.
How prepared is the cabin crew to deliver a child?
According to Bubb, not that prepared. All flight attendants and cabin crew are required to be trained in advanced CPR, but most don’t have additional medical training to prepare for an onboard delivery. Additionally, the aircraft does hold basic medical supplies like a first aid kit and defibrillators, but not much more. In the event of a medical emergency, cabin crew discreetly ask passengers if there are any medical personnel on board to assist, while pilots call dispatch from the cockpit to speak to advanced medical personnel to assist with the emergency.
“The pilots also declare an emergency and request air traffic control to give priority to land in an airport that is close to the destination and divert the aircraft there,” says Bubb. “The goal is to land safely and immediately find professional medical care for the passenger.”
What is the citizenship of a baby born on a plane?
The question of citizenship would depend on several factors, according to family law attorney Andrea Worden. These factors include which country's territory the plane was in when the baby was born, the baby's parent(s)' citizenship, and possibly the country of registration of the aircraft.
For domestic flights, the child’s residency and place of birth may be recorded as the state in which the child received hospital care, but international rules may differ.
“If the child was born over US territory (including territorial waters) to non-US citizens, it would likely be granted US citizenship based on jus soli, or the right of soil citizenship,” Worden explains. “In most other cases, the child would assume the citizenship of their parents. It’s also possible that the child would be given the citizenship of the nation in which the aircraft was registered, regardless of where it departed or landed. This rule only applies to prevent the child from being stateless.”
According to Radchenko, there are other considerations taken into account by the US Department of State. US-registered aircrafts outside American airspace are not considered to be part of US territory, so a child born on one of these aircrafts outside of American airspace would not automatically acquire US citizenship right away.
“A child born in international waters should have their place of birth listed as ‘AT SEA’ and a child born in flight in a region where no country claims sovereignty would list their place of birth as ‘IN THE AIR,’” he says.
For specific cases, however, it’s best to personally consult an attorney.
Do babies receive lifelong free airfare with the specific airline on which they were born?
Unlikely. Many of the experts were unaware of this rumored rule.
What are the medical expenses of having a child in-flight?
Hospital births (even with insurance) are expensive, but in-flight medical emergencies can be pricey without proper protection.
Radchenko notes, “It is very important to consider proper insurance to cover stop overs in an interim country of travel. In case of unplanned labor and delivery in transit, this can not only be a major inconvenience, but can also set back a couple financially.” He explains that in some countries, “cost of labor and associated medical costs can range up to $20 to $30K, and in some complicated cases with premature deliveries, it can reach $80 to $100K.”
Medical expenses might be scary, but the important thing to remember is that the airplane aspect isn’t anything to worry about, whether you’re pregnant or experiencing unexpected health issues on a flight. All cabin crew and pilots are highly trained and capable of handling an emergency, and that should be reassuring.
As Bubb puts it, “The way we are trained is to never assume that any flight will go right. We anticipate the worst so that way we stay three steps ahead of the plane no matter where we are flying.”