Death seems to come at the most inconvenient times, doesn’t it? Elvis died on the john, Segway owner Dean Kamen drove his own Segway off a cliff, and Steve Irwin met his maker at the end of a stingray barb (although eternal optimists would argue the man “died doing what he loved”). We can’t all pass peacefully in our sleep. So, it’s no surprise that, among the millions of air travelers taking to the skies each day, some are bound to keel over mid-flight. But, what happens to their bodies — and their unfortunate seatmates — when they do?
Every airline, of course, packs an essential first aid kit and all flight crews are trained in CPR and other emergency life-saving procedures. Barring a serious outbreak of something like Ebola, if there’s merely a medical emergency, chances are that pilots will divert to the nearest airport to ensure a passenger has access to whatever treatment they need. However, if a passenger flatlines mid-flight — in the words of The Princess Bride, we’re talking “all dead,” not just “mostly dead” — most flights will continue on to their original destination.
Contrary to urban legend, modern airplanes are not equipped with a so-called “corpse cupboard” on the off chance they need to hide a body.
But a legitimate death resulting in an “all dead” body is another matter entirely. Contrary to urban legend, modern airplanes are not equipped with a so-called “corpse cupboard” on the off chance they need to hide a body. In fact, there’s little spare room at all on most modern aircraft. Between all the seats, equipment, booze, and whatever gourmet six-course meal they’re serving in first class these days, nearly every cubic inch is accounted for.
If you think the bathroom sounds like the ideal spot to stash a body, you’re not alone. However, the British documentary A Very British Airline revealed that “British Airways cabin crew are told to put dead bodies in spare seats rather than toilets.” In the name of common decency, we imagine every airline in the world has a similar policy. In most cases, the body will be covered to maintain some modicum of dignity then, if possible, moved to an empty row.
Unfortunately, these days, flights are often completely full. More often than not, that means wherever the passenger passed is where they’ll remain for the duration of the flight. While that’s unlikely to bother the deceased much, it’s more than enough to rattle even the heartiest seatmate. If you dare to disappear down a rabbit hole that’s sure to swear you off flying ever again, the Internet is replete with stories of passengers who had to share air with a deceased passenger.
Quora user Ana Ansari relayed her personal experience which was surprisingly matter-of-fact:
“A woman sitting two rows behind me on an 11-hour flight from Frankfurt to Singapore had stopped breathing on the last leg of the trip. The woman’s immediate neighbors were allocated new seats as they lay her across the row of seats. Once it was determined that there was nothing else they could do, they covered her body with a sheet (but not her face) and the flight carried on as per normal.”
Overall, however, it’s a rare occurrence. Even seasoned flight attendants will tell you that, in their decades of air travel, a passenger death might happen once, maybe twice if they’re unlucky. But, when it does, it’s almost always memorable. In her expose of air travel nonsense, flight attendant Heather Poole shares her experience with a passenger who tried to smuggle their dead mother aboard a flight inside a garment bag. If you’re curious why the hell anyone would do something so despicable, Poole notes, “Because it’s expensive — delivering a body on a flight can cost up to $5,000.”
If you’re freaked out at the possibility of flying with a dead body on board your next flight, you almost certainly already have.
Don’t worry though. If you’re freaked out at the possibility of flying with a dead body on board your next flight, you almost certainly already have. Many fallen soldiers return home aboard commercial airlines, but domestic airlines also transport a surprising number of civilian bodies around the country on a daily basis. The fact is, most people don’t die where they want to be buried, and they have to find their way back home somehow.
Take heart though, as one anonymous pilot told Yahoo: “No one technically ‘dies’ on [a] plane if the crew can at all help it.” The reason? Because of the “crazy paperwork and all kinds of red tape and the aircraft has to be grounded, a.k.a. a crime scene.” In a nod to Disney’s notorious (though untrue) “No Deaths in the Magic Kingdom. Ever.” policy, the pilot notes the crew instead move the deceased to the tarmac and declares them dead there. If true, it’s a gross but business-savvy solution to an inconvenient problem.
Maybe we’re a bit too practical, but doesn’t it seem like a dead seatmate would make for the best seatmate ever? They never get up to go to the bathroom, they don’t snore, they’re guaranteed not to small-talk you to death, and you can steal their mini pretzels without feeling the least bit guilty.