The Ugly American: What to Do if You Die on an Airplane

Travel Features

You probably think dead people should stay home. They don’t. They travel all the time, wheeling their oxygen tanks, taking their nitroglycerin pills, having heart attacks and croaking in the aisles of your aircraft. Personally, I used to be bothered by that, and I swore I’d never be caught dead traveling dead. But today I laugh at my surly young self. Today I’m of the mind that an airplane is the perfect place to die. Below are six things to expect when you’re expiring midair.

1. Expect a Free First-Class Seat
Flight attendants aren’t allowed to lock dead people in the lavatories anymore. Evidently this wasn’t considered a respectful way to treat someone who recently croaked. Now they have to find an area on the plane that is separate from as many of the living passengers as possible. You’d think the cockpit would be the natural answer here, but no. Instead the stiff usually ends up in a first-class seat, along with its travel companions. This is one frequent-flier perk that doesn’t get advertised.

2. Expect Free Doctor Care
The first thing a flight crew does when they encounter a dead or dying passenger is make an announcement asking for any doctors onboard to identify themselves and offer a hand, and doctors are always onboard. (But be forewarned that not a lot of effort goes into confirming their credentials in a situation like this.)

3. Expect Needles
In addition, all commercial jets, as part of FAA regulations, are equipped with elaborate emergency medical kits that contain pop-up triage units (practically). Doctors use this to diagnose and treat people who have collapsed and/or exhibited other symptoms of having kicked the bucket or are in danger of doing it soon. I heard there’s syringes and morphine in those kits, but unless you’re near dead, don’t get any ideas because they keep it under lock and key.

4. Expect the Possibility You Won’t Stay Dead
All commercial jets are equipped with portable defibrillators, which are compact versions those shock machines with paddles that you see TV doctors use on patients whose hearts have stopped during dramatic emergency scenes. Each airplane crew member is trained on how to use these machines, and who wouldn’t be eager to get their hands on a device like that? If it were up to me, I’d break it out if a passenger had a bad cough. Evidently I’m not alone, because since the implementation of these defibrillators onboard commercial airplanes, there has been rampant use of them, not just on the passengers but occasionally on a fellow flight attendant as well. Passengers aren’t the only people who get to drop dead on airplanes.

5. Don’t Expect the Plane to Make an Emergency Landing
Pilots don’t divert the plane as a matter of course just because there’s a dead passenger onboard. Usually they continue to their scheduled destination, land without incident, then make all the living passengers miss their connections by announcing they should stay in their seats until the airport medical personnel has come onboard, collected the body and cleared the aisles.

6. Don’t Expect a Refund on Your Ticket
Unless the airline is responsible for your death, which totally may be the case, don’t expect a reimbursement for the cost of your ticket. Airlines rarely offer allowances on your inability to enjoy your destination on account of you being dead when you got there.

Hollis Gillespie writes a weekly travel column for Paste. She is a writing instructor, travel expert and author of We Will be Crashing Shortly, coming out in June. Follow her on Twitter.

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