What happens when someone dies on a plane?

Oliver Smith
British Airways used to prop up dead passengers and pretend they were dozing

You're a member of the cabin crew, 35,000 feet above the ground and six hours away from your destination, when it emerges one of your passengers has died. What do you do?

Deaths on planes are rare, of course, and seriously ill travellers are often prohibited from flying. But it does happen.

And, while flight attendants are usually adept at dealing with drunks and screaming babies, a lead trainer at British Airways admitted that handling a recently deceased flier is something of a “grey area”. She was, however, able to offer some advice.

“You cannot put a dead passenger in the toilet,” she told new recruits while being filmed for a recent BBC documentary about BA. “It’s not respectful and [the corpse] is not strapped in for landing. If they slid off the toilet, they would end up on the floor. You would have to take the aircraft apart to get that person out. Imagine putting someone in the aircraft toilet?!”

Her macabre advice refers to the possibility that rigor mortis might set in, meaning the body could not be removed from a confined space.

“In a nice, easy world – where someone dying on an aircraft isn’t – you put them back on seats. I know a crew member who had to sit next to someone who passed away for the rest of the flight. All of this is such a horrible topic.”

Once seated, flight attendants should “tuck a blanket” right up to the corpse’s neck, she added. If there is space in first class, they will often be placed there, and nearby passengers informed (and presumably offered a complimentary G&T).

In 2006, a deceased man on a BA Flight 213 to Boston was placed in first class for three hours. "Four male stewards came in carrying the poor chap," one flier on board told the Daily Mail. "But he was a bit too big for them. Another passenger lent a hand as they propped him up. They wrapped him in a blanket and strapped him in and semi-reclined the seat. But his head was exposed and leaning to one side, as if he were asleep. I could see the top of his head throughout the flight. I felt quite uneasy, but some passengers were being very British about it and simply not acknowledging there was anything wrong."

If there is no space in first class, and no empty seats, the deceased may face the ignominy of being placed in the aisle. This is what happened on an Azul Air flight in 2016, when a diabetic woman died suddenly. Cabin crew had no choice but to put her there, apologise to fellow fliers, and cover her with a blanket.

The website Quora has further tales. Ana Ansari, a user, said: “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 neighbours were allocated new seats and they lay her across the row. 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 usual.”

The system wasn’t always thus. The BA trainer went on to explain that the airline used to prop up dead passengers – and pretend they were dozing.

“It’s what we used to do many years ago – give them a vodka and tonic, a Daily Mail and eye-shades and they were like, they’re fine. We don’t do that [now].”

Is one of these passengers dead?

Stiffs are not always dealt with by tucking them in with a rug and putting a pair of sunglasses on them. Larger planes might even have a dedicated corpse cupboard – a discreet locker next to one of the exit doors long enough to store your average body.

Singapore Airlines used to have one on its A340s. A spokesperson told the Guardian in 2004: “On the rare occasion when a passenger passes away during a flight the crew do all that is possible to manage the situation with sensitivity and respect.

“Unfortunately given the space constraints in an aircraft cabin, it is not always possible to find a row of seats where the deceased passenger can be placed and covered in a dignified manner, although this is always the preferred option.

“The compartment will be used only if no suitable space can be found elsewhere in the cabin.”

On the happier note, cabin crew are also trained to help deliver babies at 35,000 feet. The circle of life, eh?

For another macabre Travel Truth, see our guide to what happens when someone dies on a cruise ship.