With commercial airline travel at an all-time high and the continued aging of the general population, an increasing number of airlines are faced with accommodating the needs of ill travelers.  The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has established protocols for emergency medical equipment and training which attempts to address this demand.  A number of airlines have even added added an air-to-ground communication link with medical experts so that flight-plan and medical decisions can be made by the captain in consultation with a doctor on the ground, as well as by a doctor or other health care professional if one is on the plane.  

If you incur a medical emergency while aloft, your airline should be prepared to handle your situation.  However, if your airline is not adequately prepared as required by the FAA and you or a loved one experience a medical emergency that the airline could not handle as a result, you may be able to hold the airline liable for your injuries. 

What Kinds of Medical Emergencies Occur on a Plane?

Just because you are on an airplane doesn’t mean that medical emergencies will wait until you have landed to occur.  In fact, certain aspects of flying may cause problems for some people that may not exist on the ground.  Among the most common in-flight medical emergencies are cardiac problems, loss of consciousness, seizures, respiratory problems such as asthma, and musculoskeletal problems such as strains, sprains and fractures.  Each year, several babies are born aboard airplanes as well. 

What Emergency Medical Equipment must Commercial Airlines Carry?

As of April 12, 2004, the FAA began requiring that all commercial airlines and regional jets with a maximum payload capacity of greater than 7,500 pounds (generally 30 or more passengers) and at least one flight attendant must carry the following items:

  • At least one approved Automated External Defibrillators (AED), legally marketed in the U.S. in accordance with Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requirements.
  • At least one approved Emergency Medical Kit (EMK), enhanced with a number of specifically required items.

In the event that certain contents of the EMK are used during a flight, an inventory of the remaining contents and restocking of the contents would be needed to ensure that the minimum content requirements are satisfied prior to any subsequent flight.  To avoid delays, some airlines may elect to carry more than one EMK aboard each airplane.  

Who is Allowed to Use the Medical Equipment?

If a medical emergency does occur, it is important to know who can use the equipment on board the flight.  While the FAA requires what medical equipment is required aboard each airplane, it does not specify who may use it.  Flight attendants should grant access to the equipment only to trained crew members or to other persons qualified and trained in the use of medical equipment.  In some cases you may hear announcement such as "If there are any doctors on board the airplane, please make themselves known to the cabin crew." 

The decision to allow passengers to assist another passenger and to have access to medical equipment is up to the airline.  However, it is highly recommended that flight attendants check the credentials of passengers holding themselves out to be medical experts before allowing them access to the equipment.  Doctors who volunteer to help the crew manage a medical emergency should remember to practice within the limits of their training and knowledge.  A doctor who volunteers to assist in such a situation and ultimately causes more harm to the injured passenger may be subject to medical malpractice and liable to the extent of the injuries caused.  

Should I Speak with an Attorney about My In-Flight Medical Emergency?

If you or a loved one has incurred a medical emergency while on board an airplane and didn’t receive proper treatment, you should consult an experienced attorney.  An attorney can guide you through the complex rules and regulations that govern commercial airlines and inform you of your legal rights as a passenger and any possible remedies.