What do airlines do with dead passengers?

You're a member of the cabin crew, you're 30,000 feet above the ground and six hours away from your destination when it emerges one of your passengers has died. What do you do?

While flight attendants are usually adept at dealing with drunk passengers and screaming babies, a lead trainer at British Airways admitted that handling a recently deceased flier is a “grey area”. She was, however, able to offer some advice. 

“You cannot put a dead passenger in the toilet,” she told trainees, while being filmed for a BBC documentary about BA. “It’s not respectful and [the corpse] is not strapped in for landing. If they slid off the toilet, they would end up on the floor. You would have to take the aircraft apart to get that person out. Imagine putting someone in the aircraft toilet?!”

What do airlines do with dead passengers?

Her advice refers to instances where rigor mortis had set in and a body could not be removed from a confined space.

“In a nice, easy world – where someone dying on an aircraft isn’t – you put them back on seats. I know a crew member who had to sit next to someone who passed away for the rest of the flight. All of this is such a horrible topic.”

Once seated, flight attendants should “tuck a blanket” right up to the corpse’s neck, she added. If there is space in first class, they will often be placed there, and nearby passengers informed.

In 2006, a deceased man on a BA Flight 213 to Boston was placed in first class for three hours. "Four male stewards came in carrying the poor chap," one flier on board told the Mail. "But he was a bit too big for them. Another passenger lent a hand as they propped him up. They wrapped him in a blanket and strapped him in and semi-reclined the seat. But his head was exposed and leaning to one side, as if he were asleep. I could see the top of his head throughout the flight. I felt quite uneasy, but some passengers were being very British about it and simply not acknowledging there was anything wrong."

The system wasn’t always thus. The trainer went on to explain that British Airways used to prop up dead passengers and pretend they were dozing.

“It’s what we used to do many years ago – give them a vodka and tonic, a Daily Mail and eye-shades and they were like, they’re fine. We don’t do that [now].”

Bodies can be dealt with once the plane has landed

In a Reddit thread where a user claiming to be a former flight attendant with Emirates ran a Q&A, he said that deaths on-board happen a lot more than people realise.

"Enough to have body bags on each flight," he said. 

Stiffs are not always dealth with by tucking them in with a rug and putting a pair of sunglasses on them. A now-defunct Singapore Air A340-500 was said to have a dedicated corpse cupboard. 

The discreet locker next to one of the plane's exit doors was long enough to store your average body. 

A spokesperson told the Guardian in 2004: "On the rare occasion when a passenger passes away during a flight the crew do all that is possible to manage the situation with sensitivity and respect.

"Unfortunately given the space constraints in an aircraft cabin, it is not always possible to find a row of seats where the deceased passenger can be placed and covered in a dignified manner, although this is always the preferred option.

"The compartment will be used only if no suitable space can be found elsewhere in the cabin."

On the plus side, cabin crew are often trained how to help deliver babies at 30,000 feet. The circle of life, eh?