Javascript is not enabled.

Javascript must be enabled to use this site. Please enable Javascript in your browser and try again.

Skip to content
Content starts here
CLOSE ×
Search
Leaving AARP.org Website

You are now leaving AARP.org and going to a website that is not operated by AARP. A different privacy policy and terms of service will apply.

What Happens if You Have a Medical Emergency on a Plane?

Here’s how airline crews handle passengers’ health issues during a flight

spinner image woman with a headache on an airplane
Konstantin Labunskiy / Alamy Stock Photo

A 52-year-old Boeing executive from Washington state experienced a traveler’s nightmare in 2012: He had a heart attack while flying home from Dubai to Seattle on United Arab Emirates. The crew had a beyond-bare-bones medical kit with an electrocardiogram machine on board, but too weak a Wi-Fi signal to transmit the files to the MedAire health consultants on the ground. Fortunately, an American EMT on board could read and relay the information to the doctors, who then determined the patient needed immediate attention at a hospital.

The captain had two options on where to divert the plane based on the flight’s path: Baku, Azerbaijan, or Tehran, Iran. He settled on Tehran, since that route allowed him to dump fuel over the Caspian Sea and then land safely — plus, MedAire’s database showed the city had top-notch hospitals for dealing with this sort of emergency. An ambulance met the plane on the runway and took the passenger to the hospital, where doctors treated him with drugs to prevent arterial blockages and performed an angioplasty. They then cleared him to fly home and recuperate in Washington state.

spinner image Image Alt Attribute

AARP Membership— $12 for your first year when you sign up for Automatic Renewal

Get instant access to members-only products and hundreds of discounts, a free second membership, and a subscription to AARP the Magazine. Find out how much you could save in a year with a membership. Learn more.

Join Now

At any time, roughly 1 million airline passengers are airborne, and some experience medical crises. While it’s not likely — there’s an average of one such incident per 604 flights, according to the Journal of the American Medical Association — many fliers are nervous about the possibility that they’ll have some sort of health issue while stuck 32,000 feet in the air. That’s a long way from an emergency room.

“This is a virtual city suspended in the sky. You’re going to see things,” says Paulo M. Alves, M.D., global medical director of aviation health for Phoenix-based MedAire. But when medical issues occur, Alves stresses that airlines have several resources at hand, including the type of ground-to-air consultations his company’s highly trained teams provide cabin crews.

As a result, deaths are rare: Only 1 in 8 million travelers pass away in midair.

“The severe events that we deal with most often are cardiac arrest and stroke,” says Taylor Garland, a spokesperson for the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA in Washington, D.C. “Mental illness and addiction [overdoses] are also becoming more common.”

Other emergencies often occur because the in-flight environment can exacerbate health issues. Planes are pressurized and conditions resemble the effects of being at 5,000 to 8,000 feet in altitude, which means slightly less oxygen than sea-level dwellers may be accustomed to. This most commonly can cause fainting, gastrointestinal issues and wooziness, but it can also aggravate respiratory and cardiovascular symptoms. “These things happen in regular people’s lives. There’s nothing magical about the airplane, except it just stresses the system a little bit,” says Lewis S. Nelson, M.D., chair of the department of emergency medicine at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School in Newark.

Prepared on board

To ensure that members of their in-flight teams can handle the unexpected, all major carriers teach them basic first aid, which includes administering CPR and supplementary oxygen. “[Our] crew members are also trained to administer automated external defibrillators,” adds a Singapore Airlines spokesperson.

See more Health & Wellness offers >

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration doesn’t require extensive medical kits on board, but it does mandate certain supplies to help crew members handle health emergencies. The must-haves include assessment tools such as stethoscopes, as well as adhesive tape, analgesics, antihistamines, bronchodilators, lidocaine, nitroglycerin, saline and tourniquets. It also requires IV lines (used when hypotension sets in from dehydration, hemorrhaging or other causes), but they can only be administered by qualified medical professionals. Pilots or flight attendants will sometimes make an announcement asking if anyone on board has medical training and is willing to help.

When even more professional assistance is required, cabin crews turn to companies like MedAire, a leading provider of (among other services) medical training and in-flight emergency assistance to the airlines, for their expertise. “It’s helpful to have live advice from medical personnel who understand the effects of altitude on human physiology, the constraints of the aircraft environment and the types of training we receive — and who have intimate knowledge of the equipment we have to work with,” Garland says.

MedAire even has an app that walks crew members and volunteers through diagnostic steps and collects key data for its specialists on the ground.

AARP Travel Center

Or Call: 1-800-675-4318

Enter a valid departing date

Enter a valid returning date

Age of children:

Child under 2 must either sit in laps or in seats:

Enter a valid departing date

Age of children:

Child under 2 must either sit in laps or in seats:

Enter a valid departing date

Age of children:

Child under 2 must either sit in laps or in seats:

Flight 2

Enter a valid departing date

Flight 3

Enter a valid departing date

Flight 4

Enter a valid departing date

Flight 5

Enter a valid departing date

+ Add Another Flight

Enter a valid checking in date

Enter a valid checking out date


Occupants of Room 1:



Occupants of Room 2:



Occupants of Room 3:



Occupants of Room 4:



Occupants of Room 5:



Occupants of Room 6:



Occupants of Room 7:



Occupants of Room 8:


Enter a valid departing date

Enter a valid returning date

Age of children:

Occupants of Room 1:

Age of children:


Occupants of Room 2:

Age of children:


Occupants of Room 3:

Age of children:


Occupants of Room 4:

Age of children:


Occupants of Room 5:

Age of children:

Age of children:

Child under 2 must either sit in laps or in seats:

Enter a valid start date

Enter a valid drop off date

Select a valid to location

Select a month

Enter a valid from date

Enter a valid to date