Is there a doctor on the plane? originally appeared in The Guardian on November 1, 2013.
“Unfortunately, most flights are full,” says Heather Poole, a flight attendant for a major US carrier and author of Cruising Attitude, an account of her experiences in the air. “So it’s not always possible to move an incapacitated passenger to an empty row of seats. Singapore Airlines is the most prepared. Some of their planes feature a ‘corpse cupboard’, a compartment for storing a dead body if the situation arises.”
Even today, with low-cost carriers undermining the mystique of air travel, there is still something vaguely magical about flight crew, these people to whom one looks for reassurance in the event of scary turbulence. Post-9/11, they are trained to be cautious even in the face of a medical emergency. “You want to be there for that passenger, but you never know if it’s a decoy,” Morter says. “There might be a passenger pretending to have a fit and someone trying to get into the flight deck at the same time.”
Or, Poole says, it may be the case that the passenger has merely taken a sleeping pill and passed out. (“I’ll never forget that lady. We checked for breathing. Checked for a pulse. Cleared a row of passengers and were just about to get her body flat on the ground when she came to. Turned out she’d taken a sleeping pill. That’s why we prefer passengers to take them after we’ve pushed away from the gate and we’re up in the air, in case there’s a delay and we have to disembark. Flight attendants can do a lot of things, but there’s no way we’re going to be able to drag half a plane full of disoriented wet noodles by the ankles off the plane.”)