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Dead People Flying

Anne McDonough

It's never happened to me (knock on wood) so I know I shouldn't judge...but the response of a passenger who woke up to find a corpse in the seat next to him on a British Airways flight from Delhi to Heathrow seemed awfully callous to me. This story relates how he woke up to find next to him the body of an elderly woman who had just died; the Sunday Times quotes him as saying: "The police even started interviewing me as a potential witness, although I had no idea what had happened to the woman. I just kept thinking to myself: 'I've paid more than £3,000 for this'."

It's not the first time this has happened; just last December, the Daily Mail ran this sad story, which I imagine was especially tough for the wife of the passenger who died on a British Airways flight from Heathrow to Boston. That story said that about a dozen deaths occur onboard the airline's planes each year.

I don't doubt it's a tough situation for the airlines, the passengers and of course anyone traveling with the deceased. But I would hope that folks who go through something like this would err on the compassionate side rather than complain that their fare was wasted. Having to deal with a natural death onboard is hardly something you can take personally. End of rant.

By Anne McDonough |  March 19, 2007; 4:05 PM ET  | Category:  Anne McDonough , The Odd File
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Too bad about her....

Found this blog today on it, too.

Posted by: Marshall | March 19, 2007 4:25 PM

Well, I'd be mad if I was that guy, too - if you read the story, it's clear that she didn't die next to him; the airline just decided it would be a nice idea to stick a dead woman in the empty seat next to him. I'd be pretty damn freaked out if I woke up next to a dead person, too! I mean, I know airplanes are cramped, but don't they have *anywhere* else they could stash a corpse??

Posted by: h3 | March 19, 2007 4:45 PM

I don't think Anne McDonough gets it.

There is absolutely no evidence that the complaining passenger lacks compassion or has taken a naturally occurring death on board personally.

However, in a situation such as this, the airline personnel have moral, ethical, and professional obligations to (at the very least) first awaken the passenger and explain what has happened and that they are going to move the dead body into a seat next to him so as to spare him the shock of waking up to find a dead body has been placed in a seat beside him.

Where was the compassion of the air crew for the complaining passenger when he was asleep?

Posted by: John McMahon | March 19, 2007 5:14 PM

I do get that he was startled--and absolutely, there certainly could have been things that were handled differently, starting with the staff waking him up to inform him--but it was the comment on how much he paid that got my goat; as if it would have been more palatable if someone who paid for an economy seat had to sit next to the body, rather than a first class passenger.

Posted by: Anne McDonough | March 19, 2007 5:19 PM

The complaining passenger's comments do not imply that it would have been more palatable if someone who paid for an economy seat had to sit next to the body, rather than a first class passenger.

They do imply that, in light of having paid for a first-class fare, the passenger received less than first-class treatment by the air crew, and that in addition to the shock of find a dead body had been placed in the seat next to him, he also had to undergo the indignity of a police interview about the death (which he didn't know anything about).

If he had paid for an economy seat, the air crew's behavior would have still been unacceptable, but the fact that he paid for a first class fare and was still treated badly increases the indignity.

I think you are misinterpretting the passenger's complaint (you don't get it), as well as demonstrating a surprising and unfortunate lack of compassion for him.

Posted by: John McMahon | March 19, 2007 5:44 PM

To H3 -- you've been on an airplane, right? There is barely any room for a carry on, let alone "*anywhere* else they could stash a corpse." I think the main point of moving the body was to give a bit more privacy to the family members traveling with the now-deceased passenger.

The article also says that the body was "at the end of his row" so it doesn't quite sound like she had her head resting on his shoulder or anything. The pods in the first class cabin on long-haul BA flights also have a certain element of privacy to them. And it was a bit galling that he describes as "terrifying" he sound of the woman's poor daughter crying for her mother. Sorry that this sudden death was so inconvenient for you Mr. Trinder, but I doubt the daughter's first thought was about you. And no, she probably wasn't thinking "Score! Free upgrade!" either.

Posted by: Arlington | March 19, 2007 5:49 PM

The problem, IMHO, is how the airline responded. Their comment was literally `get over it` after he'd been forced to sit next to the body, and then was forced to wait until he was questioned by authorities upon arrival. I`m not a fan of filing a lawsuit for emotional distress, but given what juries have awarded in less worthy cases I could see this ending up in court. This is such a rare thing BA could have comped the man`s trip with no harm to its bottom line or image, rather than getting the worldwide press it is now. Sure, fixating on the ticket cost is less than charitable, but people in unusual circumstance don`t always have perfect thoughts. Give him credit for not causing an air rage incident

Posted by: iceman | March 19, 2007 5:52 PM

Anne and Arlington - are you both out of your minds?! There are so many things wrong with the way the Airline handled this, I don't even know where to begin.

And Arlington - the body had to be strapped in and wedged in with pillows because it kept slumping onto the floor of the plane. How would you feel if you were in that situation? Would you be quite so sanctimonious and sympathetic then?

There's room for a suitcase below, there's room for a body. Hell, it was probably a 747, even if they used a mid-plane Galley that would have been more acceptable for bodystashing than strapping a now decomposing, and fluid-leaking corpse in first class with a sobbing relative.

Again, the way the airline handled this situation is so appalling and nauseating, I daresay that passenger has a pretty solid claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress. I've got emotional distress from reading this article, and I wasn't anywhere NEAR the offending situation. I had such positive feelings towards British Airways... until I read this...

Posted by: Jay | March 19, 2007 5:58 PM

Why didn't they land? That trip is almost entirely over land - the plane should have been diverted because of the health issues involved with a body at room temp for 9 hours.

Posted by: NOVA | March 19, 2007 7:02 PM

I feel better after scrolling through the comments. This was badly handled by the airline, I'd be angry also. The flight should have been diverted. If it only happens what was the figure ten or so times a year, it's not a significant expense considering the loss of goodwill from evey passenger and everyone they tol, not to mention these stories.....

Posted by: CW | March 19, 2007 7:31 PM

Look - this happens. I was on a United flight from India to London years ago and the guy in the seat next to me died in his sleep. True, he was alone and wasn't moved there and he didn't have any "wailing" relatives on board, but my first thought wasn't "Gee, my trip is ruined." I was just sad for his family who was waiting for him at the airport. In this case a woman died. Her daughter was freaked out. And a very, very rich guy was inconvenienced and probably lost a little sleep and an hour of his life. It's hard for me to feel sorry for him.

Posted by: traveller | March 19, 2007 8:37 PM

A close friend has such a horror of funerals that they make her physically sick. I cannot imagine her suffering if she found herself in a situation like this. Quite apart from ignoring the health risks involved in putting a leaking, decomposing, corpse near the unfortunate passenger, had anyone considered that he might have been a Cohen, an orthodox Hindu, or a member of some other ethnicity that forbids contact with the dead? No feeling human being could lack compassion for the grieving relatives, but there is no excuse for the flight crew's idiotic lack of common sense and basic hygiene.

Posted by: kaleberg | March 19, 2007 8:40 PM

It is unfortunate that BA was not better prepared. Although it seldom happens, people do die during flights and airlines in general should be prepared. Thinking otherwise is like considering why should we learn first aid techniques if we rarely use them.
Some airlines do prepare for these unfortunate events in long haul flights like Singapore Airlines (SA). For their extended flights SA A340s have a special refrigerated compartment for such events.

Posted by: longhaul traveler | March 19, 2007 9:02 PM

The poor guy has a completely legitimate complaint. He pays $10,000 or more for a first class ticket and the airline not only surprises him with a dead body as he's waking up, but involves him in a police investigation? They could have woken him up beforehand, told him they were going to move him anywhere else, refunded his ticket price if they were moving him to non-first-class, etc., but no, sounds like they just said "Sorry, you should have known that part of sitting in first class is having a dead person dropped on you if we have one." And yes, buying a first class ticket means that you darn well ought to be treated better than someone who pays coach (not that it would have been acceptable if this had happened in coach, either). That's why you pay more. I've flown non-coach a grand total of twice, so I'm not exactly helping myself out by saying this, but if you pay less (about 90% less, for international flights) you agree to accept less. That's not a sanctimonious human rights issue, it's a contract issue.

Posted by: Robert | March 19, 2007 10:04 PM

This airline's actions are outrageous. Stop pointing the finger at the first class passenger who paid a lot of money. I do not expect to sit next to a dead person even if my fare is $1. That is not part of my contract. The guilty group who is concerned about money here is really the airline who doesnt want to spend any money landing in order to provide the body a more appropriate return.

Posted by: Anonymous | March 20, 2007 10:46 AM

I'm amazed that people made such a big deal about this. Death is part of life. The airline people did their best under the circumstances. A friend working on a cruise ship had a passenger die of a heart attack in one of the dining rooms. The medical staff had tried to resuscitate him with no success. Apparently, the people in the dining room just continued eating as if nothing was going on, and then the next day filed complaints that someone dared die and disturb their dinner.

Posted by: shocked | March 20, 2007 2:43 PM

Shocked, this is nothing like being on a cruise line where someone across the dining room dies. In that case, you can finish your meal or you can leave the room immediately.

This man WOKE UP to find a dead body had been placed near him. I don't understand quite how he slept through the commotion (maybe he took a sleeping pill, many do) but the fact is, the airline did not see any reason to notify this passenger of the circumstances and prepare him. If nothing else, he could have been offered the seat in coach where the daughter was (allowing her to be near her mother if she chose), or any other empty seat if there was one, and offered him a first-class roundtrip ticket and their gratitude for his help in the situation.

And then the flight attendants should have explained to the authorities that he didn't know anything about the death and thus did not need to be questioned. It's the details here that are the problem, not that some rich guy complained because he was inconvenienced. I'd be made as hell even if I was in coach on a free ticket. You just don't have such a lack of sensitivity to the concerns of other LIVING people that the airline employees showed to this man.

Posted by: Sarah | March 20, 2007 3:26 PM

Wow, I guess some people really have no experience with corpses. "Leaking"? "Decomposing"? "Health Risk"? That's ridiculous. I've dealt with several pets and one adult 4-6 hours after death and I can tell you that there is NO signicant decomposition (let alone "leaking") in that time. They just get cold. It would take more than 8 hours to even develop a noticeable smell.

It sounds like the guy was a callous ***hole. Someone dies, their daughter can't control her grief and his only thought is "this isn't the first class service I paid for"? I guess this guy honks the horn of his Mercedes when the freeway ahead of him is closed due to a fatal accident.

Though the airline perhaps might have been more sympathetic, bottom line, he had an unpleasant flight. Wanting compensation for that is like wanting compensation for being on a red-eye next to a screaming infant.

The airline can't control babies crying and they can't control people dying. It sounds like the BA staff did what they could to minimize the event for the maximum number of people. Obviously someone has to end up close to the body and they are not going to be happy about it.

Also, the airline can't control the police, they didn't "involve him in a police investigation".

I'm also left to wonder exactly what he said to the airline staff. Perhaps the "get over it" was well justified in the face of an irrational, overly entitled passenger.

Posted by: MarkGo | March 20, 2007 3:48 PM

"Leaking?" "Decomposing?" Maybe if it were a week-long flight that would be a problem, but there's nothing "nauseating," no risk to your health, associated with sitting a few seats down from a person who has just died in her sleep.

And what's a "Cohen," please? Where I live, in the English language all of us writing here presumably speak, we're called "Jews."

Posted by: Sam | March 20, 2007 4:13 PM

"Obviously someone has to end up close to the body and they are not going to be happy about it."

Why didn't they just leave the body in the seat where it was when the lady died? Doesn't it cause *more* commotion to move the dead body all over the plane and make some stranger sit next to it? Why not leave the body in its original seat -- presumably with its family -- and let other people in that row move if they are uncomfortable?

Posted by: Washington, DC | March 20, 2007 4:33 PM

Typical sensationalized blog post - it sets up the passenger as callous, but when I actually read his tale (like most here), I felt quite bad for him. He displayed plenty of sympathy! The whole first class/money point is treated as secondary in the original article, which leads with a much better point: "they should have better plans in place." This would be a frightful situation no matter what class you sat in.

Posted by: bc | March 20, 2007 5:07 PM

Plus, in the quote in the article, his complaint about the ticket price comes when they're talking about the entire first class being kept on board for an hour while the police and coroner conducted their investigation. It's totally fair to point out that under the circumstances, you're not getting what you paid for.

There's no evidence in this article that BA made any effort to be considerate, or compassionate, or helpful. They're the ones who come out looking bad here, not this poor sap.

Posted by: Andy | March 20, 2007 7:21 PM

Sam, a Cohen (sometimes spelled Kohen) is a Jewish person descended from the High Priests that served in the Temple in Jerusalem before the first and second destructions. Jews in general are allowed to be near or touch dead bodies (hence the modern-day chevra kadisha, people who volunteer to wash bodies in preparation for burial). However, the Kohanim are not allowed to touch, or even be in the same room as a dead body (they are also not allowed to visit cemeteries) because it will render them impure, therefore they will not be able to carry out their duties to the Temple.

Most non-Orthodox, modern-day Kohanim (like myself) do not follow this, mainly because there's no Temple to serve in and so the issue of impurity is, well, a non-issue. But there are still many religious Jews descended from the High Priests that follow the rules about dead bodies.

The original commenter was not meaning to be derogatory or call all Jews "Cohens." Hope this little history lesson helped. ;)

Posted by: R | March 20, 2007 7:33 PM

Thank you, R. My brother-in-law, who is a Cohen (although that is not his name), was not able to be in the same room with the rest of our family when my husband's mother died.

Posted by: kaleberg | March 20, 2007 8:02 PM

If you've ever flown on British Airways, you would understand the cause for dismay by the passenger. It has been my experience that they are extremely inflexible, and actually rude to their passengers. Certainly, it is a terrible tragedy for the daughter who's mother died. However, a passenger, especially in First Class, should at least be given the option to be moved rather than to wake up next to a dead body which had been MOVED next to you.

Posted by: S | March 20, 2007 10:13 PM

Come on, wake the guy up, explain the situation to him and I'm guessing he would have been more understanding and a lot less crabby.

And yes, there might have been some leaking of fluids. When a person - or an animal - dies muscle control, meaning bowel and bladder control, is lost. That might account for some smell thought to be the body decomposing.

Posted by: Donna | March 21, 2007 12:40 PM

It is wrong to force any passenger or employee on the plane to involuntarily sit next to a deceased person's body. The airline should have placed the body in the gallery, or in a restroom. If they had to use a seat in first class, let the passenger in the adjoining seat take one of the newly vacated seats in coach, and immediately refund him the difference between his first class fare and the lowest priced coach fare on that route.

Although both the passenger and the airline should have immediately explained to the police that the passenger did not witness the death, I would have been happy to talk to the police watch commander if I had forced to sit next to a dead body. He or she would be an excellent witness when I sued the airline, or filed a complaint with my elected officials.

Posted by: Dominick | March 21, 2007 2:13 PM

What exactly is the airline supposed to do? It's not their fault somebody died. The whole scenario was an inconvenience to everyone involved, but these things happen.

Posted by: Kelly | March 22, 2007 12:21 PM

I'm still mystified by all the "These things happen!" people.

Yes. These things happen. But it's easy to condemn a freaked out passenger from the comfort of your corpse free desk, when you don't have a corpse flopping into your lap or sliding onto the floor. Context people. I'm extremely unnerved by the dead, even my beloved dead, let alone some strange, dead old lady.

I don't believe for a second any of you wouldn't be completely skeeved out to spend five hours in very close proximity to a strange corpse. And like Donna said, sphincter control goes when a person dies, so, yes, they do leak. Furthermore, gas caused by natural bacteria in the intestines begins to bubble and work its way out. Ever proofed yeast? Over a couple hours? Sort of like that.

No one, not even the passenger, is trivializing the loss to the family members. And no, it's no one's fault that the lady died mid-flight.

Nevertheless, being in close proximity to a recently bereaved daughter, and her stiffening, bouncing, burping, leaking's certainly on my list of the most heinous situations to encounter on a flight beyond an air crash, mechanical failure, or a terrorist hijacking situation.

When I signed up for a plane ticket, I signed up to go safely from point A to point B, safely. Implied in that contract is the fact that I will not be sharing cabinspace with pets outside of certain weight limits, or the deceased, who travel below with the luggage.

Posted by: Jay | March 23, 2007 12:38 PM

Hey this is nothing new...a brain dead guy has been flying all over the world for the last several years on Air Force One!

Posted by: Not News | March 26, 2007 1:52 PM

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