What Airlines Do In The Event Of A Medical Emergency

Yesterday’s story of the death of a passenger on board an American Airlines flight continued to unfold throughout the day, and now CNN has posted an article that addresses some of the questions people were asking about in-flight emergencies in general. CNN spoke with several experts in the area where medicine overlaps with the airline industry to find out how airlines prepare for the inevitable really sick passenger.

MedAire, a private company that handles in-flight emergencies from the ground, explained how they help flight attendants.

Flight attendants with sick passengers call [MedAire’s] Good Samaritan Hospital in Phoenix, Arizona, a level-one trauma center where emergency room physicians and a service able to translate 140 languages are on call to answer questions from any of 2 million airline passengers flying at any given time, she said.

As of 1 p.m. (3 p.m. ET) Monday, MedAire had fielded 110 calls, a busy day for the company.

On average, the company gets 75 to 80 calls for an entire day, she said.

MedAire’s clients include Continental, Southwest, and British Airways; CNN says that “American has its own in-house medical team.”

If you were wondering what an airline is required to carry on board:

By law, U.S.-based commercial airlines must carry automatic external defibrillators, oxygen and medical kits. Some airlines choose to carry extra, non-mandated medications.

Here’s what American Airlines carries:

Each of the nine-pound, $250 kits includes aspirin, alcohol swabs, nitroglycerine tablets, antihistamines, IV tubing, a stethoscope, a blood-pressure gauge, a bronchodilator, syringes, gloves, saline solution, epinephrine, dextrose, a manual resuscitation bag, alcohol pads and shears.

For those who were wondering why the emergency oxygen masks weren’t used, Dr. Russell Rayman, executive director of the Aerospace Medical Association, tells CNN that it’s “not medical oxygen and would not suffice for a passenger in an in-flight medical emergency.” Flight attendants and pilots also have oxygen supplies in the event of cabin decompression, and this could be used in a medical emergency although “that’s not its purpose.”

So what about traveling when you’re feeling ill or have a fresh cast? The official cover-your-ass medical advice from the MedAire spokesperson is:

If a passenger already has breathing problems, airplane travel will only worsen the condition because cabins are typically pressurized at 8,000 feet, said Drake.

Her advice to anyone not feeling 100 percent: “Do not travel.”

Flying in a fresh cast can also prove dangerous. “Your arm could expand and it could cut off your circulation,” she said, noting that the risk is reduced with older casts, which have typically already expanded to accommodate any swelling.

Finally, the FAA doesn’t keep a master record of medical incidents across airlines. Private companies such as Medaire do—but, well, they’re private.

“There is no central repository where these things can be archived and then retrieved,” [Rayman] said.

“They don’t want to report it because it just doesn’t look good. It’s not good P.R., you could say.”

He said even an anonymous registry would serve a useful purpose.

But the FAA counters that such a project would be beyond the scope of the organization—at least that’s how we’re interpreting this:

“We’re concerned for safety on the flight,” FAA spokeswoman Alison Duquette said. “Once someone leaves the aviation system, there is no way for us to track the outcome.” (emphasis ours)

“Don’t feel great? Rethink flying, expert says” [CNN]

(Photo: rkimpeljr)