What Happens if Someone Dies on a Plane?

20th Century Fox

There you are, just minding your business and sipping free chardonnay in first class, when all of a sudden the flight attendant has the audacity to stick some slob in the seat next to you. He can barely control his movements, can’t open his eyes, and he refuses to talk even after you repeatedly ask him to show you his boarding pass. And when you go to complain about him, the flight attendant politely whispers to you, "I’m sorry, but he’s dead."
Sound improbable? It actually happened to a guy on a British Airways flight from Delhi to Heathrow in 2007. And it's not the first or only time a dead body has been propped up in first class. That's not to say you didn’t get your upgrade because there was a corpse on the list ahead of you, just that it's one of the more popular options flight crews use when figuring out what to do when someone dies mid-flight.


A person takes ill on a flight, what happens first?

OK, so let's start from the beginning: what does the crew do if a passenger becomes sick or appears to be dying mid-air? Simple, said one pilot: "We ask if there are any medical professionals on board. And if the guy is, indeed, in the process of dying, we divert and try to save him." 

Where the plane is diverted, obviously, depends on where it was headed. "If it’s a domestic flight, we'll divert to the nearest airport and try to get him or her medical attention. If it's an international flight, however, we try to work on them until we can get close to a US airport. There's less paperwork to declare if we're in the United States.”

But what if there's no saving him?

Just to clarify: nobody technically "dies" on a plane. For legal reasons, the flight crew can't declare a person dead, and the airlines take serious issue with doctors on board doing so as well. Blame the lawyers for that one. But if the person really is dead, the flight must go on, and it's up to the crew to determine where to put the body.

Chances are, corpses will remain in their seats until the plane lands

The FAA actually has no set rules on what to do with in-flight corpses, so procedures vary from airline to airline. And since it's not a common occurrence -- unlike, say, a fistfight breaking out over a seat-reclining incident -- most FAs don't know the procedure off hand. In fact, the most common response we got from FAs and pilots was, "I’d have to check in the manual."
That said, people who have died mid-flight in the past have simply been left in their seats until the plane lands, at which point medical personnel removes the body. Typically, the body is covered with a blanket so passengers aren't staring at a corpse all flight, although some airlines do carry body bags on board.
Other times, the body has been moved up to first or business class, since those seats offer more room and are often empty. Alas, how our friend on British Airways ended up with a deceased seatmate.
If there's absolutely no room on board and the decision is made to move the body from its original seat, the flight crew has to get resourceful. Dead bodies are specifically not to be put in the lavatory, but they can be placed nearby.
"A lady just died on my friend's flight,” said one International FA. "They left her on the floor between the bathrooms, tied up a few blankets, and told everyone the lavatories were inoperable."

Flickr/Mohd Imran A. G.

What about this "corpse compartment" we've heard about?

The corpse compartment isn’t an urban legend. Singapore Airlines had a fleet of A340-500 airplanes that flew from Singapore to Newark, each equipped with a special compartment for dead bodies (assuming the cabin was full). However, Singapore stopped those flights in 2013 and sold the aircraft, so the corpse compartment is no more.

Honestly, though, how often does this even happen?

Very, VERY rarely. According to MedAire, the company that handles in-air calls regarding medical emergencies, of the nearly 20,000 calls it received in 2010 (the last year the data was available), only 93 ended in death. And that’s out of literally billions of people flying every year. So chances are it’ll never happen on your flight.

But it might. Or might have already, and you didn't even know it. In order to keep the plane calm, flight crews rarely tell anyone a passenger has died on board. That said, take caution next time you're about to unload on your seatmate for refusing to get up when you need to use the bathroom. He might not be rude, he might just be dead.

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Matt Meltzer is a staff writer with Thrillist. If he's ever seated near a corpse you’ll see it on Instagram: @meltrez1.