Responding to In-Flight Emergencies | What’s Your Role?


You’ve seen in it movies and may have even heard it in person, but “is there a doctor on the plane?” can be a very real question. For allied health professionals traveling throughout the country, this is one scenario that actually comes up more often than you might think. While there’s a good chance medical doctors are present during the flight, you may be the only trained healthcare professional aboard. Unfortunately, many don’t consider the possibility of responding to in-flight emergencies until they’re in such a situation. That said, let’s explore some of the things to know and how you can prepare for these scenarios:

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How Common Are In-Flight Emergencies?

In terms of total reported cases, the exact number of in-flight emergencies is unknown. One study reported that 1 in every 604 flights sees a serious medical situation, however, it’s noted that this is likely an underestimate. While it’s understood that these scenarios are just as common during instances of land-based transportation like public trains, taxis, and buses, airplanes present different considerations.

responding to in-flight emergencies

The difference in air pressure within a plane’s cabin (commonly pressurized between 6,000-8,000 ft above sea level) has the potential to exacerbate certain underlying medical conditions. In the United States, the Federal Aviation Administration mandates airlines carry a limited set of medical resources. Additionally, the Aviation Medical Assistance Act protects responding providers against liability, except in cases of gross negligence.

Despite these protections and provisions, responding to in-flight emergencies remains a sort of grey area for allied health professionals. You could be on your way to a new assignment or even a much-deserved vacation when an in-flight emergency occurs!

Responding to In-Flight Emergencies as an Allied Health Pro

Most commonly, the emergencies people experience during airline flights include passing out or nearly passing out, followed by breathing issues, and then gastrointestinal-related issues. Interestingly enough, almost every airline attendant in the 1930’s was a registered nurse. Today, attendants do receive training to administer CPR and identify distressed passengers. However, that’s about the extent of their required medical knowledge.

Responding to in-flight emergencies as an allied health professional isn’t required from a legal standpoint, however, some might argue there are certain moral and ethical obligations present. Again, the Aviation Medical Assistance Act protects medical professionals providing in-flight assistance, so long as they do so in good faith and without gross negligence.

Considerations for In-Flight Emergencies

If a passenger is experiencing a medical emergency within your range of expertise, consider the following:

  • Immediately identify yourself as a trained medical professional (present credentials if possible)
  • Ask the suffering passenger for their consent to assist them if they are able to respond.
  • Reassure other passengers not to panic
  • Inform and cooperate with airline assistants
  • Work to identify any relatives, friends, or family aboard the flight who may have knowledge of the suffering passenger’s condition.
  • Keep accurate notes of the incident to communicate to the pilot and ground crew upon landing.

Ultimately, it is the pilot’s decision as to whether or not the plane will make an early landing. As an allied health professional, your duty is to work together with the flight crew and any other medical professionals aboard to create the best outcome. Responding to in-flight emergencies rarely becomes cut-and-dry. Still, preparing ahead of time makes the difference for someone in need. Remember, if you aren’t qualified to handle a certain medical situation you don’t have to work beyond your expertise. Still, the most common in-flight emergencies resolve themselves through the available medical supplies found on every U.S. airliner in conjunction with the training of the flight crew. 

Have you ever had to respond to an in-flight emergency? What are things you wish others knew about these potential scenarios? Let us know in the comments below!

Author: Allied Travel Careers

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