Why Few People Have *Actually* Died in Flight

I was reading through a discussion on deaths in flight when I came across a very interesting point someone made.

Now, I don’t exactly know why I decided to go down this morbid rabbit hole, but it’s quite fascinating.

death in flight

There are only a few people in history who have actually died in flight.

How is that possible?

It’s possible because death is a legal status.  And it’s rare that someone can declare a person “dead” onboard a flight.

From the discussion:

There is no one authorized to declare a person dead aboard most civil aircraft. Even when there’s a doctor on board, US flag carriers have other medical professionals on call who are experts at aviation medicine whose judgments override on-scene medical personnel. They don’t allow for declarations of death in the air, even though they are sometimes thousands of miles away, conferring via radio-phone link.

Basically, the post is saying that without anyone on board with authority to declare someone dead, technically the person isn’t considered dead until on the ground.

Throughout the discussion, it was revealed that recent changes have been enacted that are more permissive when it comes to declaring someone dead.  In some situations, an ordinary physician may be able to.

Of course, you can biologically die in flight, so my title is a bit tongue-in-cheek.  I appreciated one comment which read, “What’s amazing is that from the time that modern humans appeared on the planet, it took 200,000 years before one of them died, simply because there were no qualified doctors or lawyers around to declare them dead.”

I also learned another fascinating tidbit–a lay person can declare someone dead if the head is detached from the body.  I guess they figure there’s no going back at that point.

About Jeanne Marie Hoffman

Former bartender, still a geek. One equal part each cookies, liberty, football, music, travel, libations. Stir vigorously. +Jeanne Marie Hoffman Jeanne on Twitter

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  1. Actually, your use of “actually” in the headline to this story is completely incorrect. This isn’t tongue in cheek – it’s too cute by half. Alternatives such as “officially,” “formally,” or “legally” would be less misleading.

    Also: the reasons for this bureaucratic phenomenon might have been interesting to read about… Even if a biological death could be legally declared onboard the plane, the question of where such death occurred would be tricky: is it the origin airport? destination airport? Airspace location of the plane at (estimated) time of death? Capital of the country of registry of the airplane? Implications of this could be difficult to predict – so awaiting landing before declaring death could understandably be a sensible policy.

    In retrospect, I shouldn’t have clicked on the bait.

  2. Jeanne – Great post! Most planes I’m ever on I think I smell death… and then I realize that it is more than likely the guy who was eating taco bell at the gate and has a smirk on his face. And yes…that guy is me.

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