In-Flight Medical Emergencies

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 What Is Aviation Law?

Aviation law is the set of laws that relate to the operation of an aircraft, the maintenance of aviation facilities, and any injuries that may occur either on the aircraft or at an aviation facility. In some cases aviation law may overlap with admiralty law, as air travel often occurs over international waters.

In the United States, the federal government has supremacy over aviation laws and regulations. However, states may enact some of their own laws related to air travel, or zoning laws related to airport facilities.

For instance, a state or municipality can enact a zoning law to ensure that an airport is located a certain distance away from a residential area. In addition to zoning laws, state laws concerning strict liability for defective aviation products or the negligence of employees will still be applicable in situations where there was a negligent act or defective product.

What Is an In-Flight Medical Emergency?

Commercial airlines and air travel in the United States is one of the most popular forms of travel in the United States, especially in cases where the distance to be traveled is great. When it comes to regulating air travel, federal law reigns supreme. In 1958, the United States established the Federal Aviation Agency, which later evolved into the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) under the umbrella of the United States Department of Transportation (“DOT”).

As air travel continued to evolve and become a more popular mode of travel in the United States, many more passengers were choosing air travel in lieu of longer trips by bus, train, or car. With an increase in the number of travelers, there was also an increase in in-flight emergencies. In other words, there was an increase in the need for aviation facilities and airplanes to have and provide emergency medical services to ill travelers.

Thus, the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) established protocols for emergency medical equipment and training as an attempt to address this medical demand. In addition to the FAA protocols, a number of airlines have even added an air-to-ground communication link with on staff medical experts so that an emergency flight-plan and medical decisions can be made by the pilot in consultation with a licensed physician on the ground. If there are any licensed physicians or other health care professionals on board the airplane, they may also be included in the communications with ground control and the pilot, if they so choose.

Nowadays, if a traveler incurs a medical emergency while the plane is in the sky, the airline should be well prepared to handle your situation. However, if the airline is not adequately prepared, as required by the FAA, and that lack of preparedness results in you or a loved one experiencing a medical emergency that results in harm, the harmed individual may be able to hold the airline liable for their injuries.

What Kinds of Medical Emergencies Occur on a Plane?

Medical emergencies are acute or severe conditions that require immediate medical attention. Thus, a medical emergency will not wait until a plane has landed before occurring. This means that an airline and the employees on board must be properly prepared to deal with medical emergencies that occur aboard a flight.

In many cases, certain aspects of flying may actually cause medical emergencies for some people that would not have otherwise existed on the ground. Some of the most common in-flight medical emergencies include:

  • Cardiac problems, including a heart attack;
  • Loss of consciousness;
  • Seizures;
  • Vomiting;
  • Respiratory problems, such as asthma, fainting, or difficulty breathing; and/or
  • Musculoskeletal problems such as strains, sprains and fractures.

What Emergency Medical Equipment Are Commercial Airlines Required to Carry?

Once again, the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) is the agency that is required to evaluate, revise, and issue regulations regarding required emergency medical equipment and training to meet the emergency medical needs of airline passengers. This means that the contents of an airline’s first aid kit will often be dictated by FAA policies.

As of April 12, 2004, the FAA began requiring that all commercial airlines, as well as 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 have the following medical equipment on hand:

  • At least one approved Automated External Defibrillators (“AED”), legally marketed in the United States in accordance with Food and Drug Administration (“FDA”) requirements; and
  • At least one approved Emergency Medical Kit (“EMK”), which must contain at a minimum the specific items required by the FAA.

In the event that any of the contents of the EMK are used during a flight, an inventory of the remaining contents and restocking of the contents is required to ensure that the minimum content requirements are satisfied prior to any subsequent flight. In order to avoid delays, some airlines may elect to carry more than one EMK aboard each airplane to ensure that one kit always meets the requirements.

It is important to note that the FAA expects and anticipates there to be some variation among the programs that air carriers establish for emergency medical equipment, but the contents must at least meet the minimum required contents.

Who Is Allowed to Use the Medical Equipment?

If a medical emergency does occur on a flight, it is important to understand who can actually use the equipment on board the flight. Although the FAA requires what medical equipment is required to be aboard each airplane, it does not specify who may use it. Thus, flight attendants should only grant access to the equipment to crew members who are trained to use the equipment or to other persons qualified and trained in the use of medical equipment.

In some cases, the flight attendants or captain may make an announcement such as “if there are any doctors or medical professionals on board the airplane, please make yourself known to the cabin crew.” In some instances, there will be a crew member that is certified to use the medical equipment on board the flight.

Once again, the decision to allow passengers to assist another passenger or to have access to medical equipment is up to the airline. However, flight attendants will typically first 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 also remember to practice within the limits of their training and knowledge.

This is because 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 be liable to the extent of the injuries caused. However, there are good samaritan laws and defenses that help to reduce the liability on the part of medical professionals that assist in medical emergencies.

Do I Need A Lawyer For Help With In-Flight Medical Emergencies?

If you or a loved one has incurred a medical emergency while on board an airplane, and the airline failed to maintain proper equipment or provide proper treatment, you should immediately consult with an experienced liability attorney.

An experienced attorney will be knowledgeable of both federal and local laws regarding in-flight medical emergencies and can assist you in determining if you can hold the airline, crew, or manufacturer of faulty equipment liable for your injuries. Additionally, an attorney can also file a civil lawsuit on your behalf. Finally, an attorney will also be able to represent you in court, as necessary.

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