What Happens When a Plane is Diverted for a Medical Emergency?

What happens when a plane is diverted for a medical emergency? This is a question that I honestly never thought about until it happened to me on my last flight from Newark to Los Angeles. Obviously, you hope it never happens and it’s never you or someone you know but I found what happens when a plane is diverted for a medical emergency to be pretty interesting. Here are a few factoids about it.

First, I have flown thousands and thousands of times across all 7 continents and pretty much every airline known to man and have only been diverted three times for any reason, period.

Once on a flight from New York to Houston I was diverted to New Orleans for weather. Another time I was flying New York to Toronto and was diverted to Buffalo for weather again. Then I flew from New York to Fort Lauderdale and was diverted to Charleston when the oxygen masks come down. But that’s it-not a bad record.
United, diverted for medical emergency
So what happens when a plane is diverted for a medical emergency? Well it’s a pain in the ass to be honest for everyone involved. Here’s why.

First and foremost, the most important thing is the health of the person in question. On my flight the other day, an elderly woman started having trouble breathing. She was given two tanks of oxygen and happened to be sitting next to a doctor. They were in first class so there was a little bit of room to maneuver and the doctor demanded they take her down.

If a doctor doesn’t happen to be on board the airlines actually have an on-call doctor service they communicate with from the ground and they control whether a plane diverts or not. However, if a doctor on board says the plane diverts: it diverts.

We happened to be somewhere over Colorado on the flight and all of a sudden the plane starts descending quickly into Denver but not rapidly to the point it scares you. The whole process going down took about 25 minutes.

When we landed in Denver, we taxied quickly to a gate where medical personnel were waiting on the jet bridge and boarded the plane-literally like 10 people. I had a skewed view as I was in the first row of economy plus but the partition wall was blocking my view.

The woman seemed to be fine when I finally saw her being wheeled off in a wheelchair. She was barking at the flight attendants to get her dog-yes she had a dog and carried it off the plane on her lap. She also apparently had left her cell phone in the cushions of the seat so they had to search for it.

So she obviously wasn’t in a truly life threatening emergency but she was traveling alone (she had to be at least 90). She was very coherent or so it seemed and she was taken off the plane. So then what?

We sat on the tarmac, unable to get off the plane for about 2 hours awaiting clearance to leave and refueling. People were very concerned about connections in Los Angeles.

When we finally left, the usual pre flight videos played and the captain and crew acted like nothing happened giving a new flight time etc etc.

Here is an interesting thing. If you paid for Wi-Fi as I did, you were forced to repurchase it on the second flight as it automatically goes off when you land. So that means you buy it again then you’re supposed to go to a website and ask for a refund. I guarantee 99% of people never do that and United makes even more money off us.

Furthermore, passengers who missed connections were rebooked free of charge but passengers like myself who got off in LA, got no compensation at all. Not that I wanted anything, but I figured United would offer some miles or something as they often do on a delay.

But after reflecting on the whole process here are a few thoughts. First, it could’ve been much worse. Second, whether or not it was truly life threatening, if it were me or someone I care about, I would want it to divert as well. Third, the airlines should have a protocol for paid things like Wi-Fi, Direct TV and movies.

That said, I was very impressed about how the passengers on my plane and flight attendants reacted when we found out the plane was going to be diverted for a medical emergency. It was a nice human moment but also interesting at the same time how it was handled.

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  1. Good post, scary stuff.

  2. I definitely had a passenger die on a flight I was on in Europe a few years ago but nobody knew until we landed. I only found out because I read it online the next day in Berlin. Scary stuff.

  3. I have been diverted on a flight from Delhi to Mumbai after a passenger had a heart attack. It was terrifying seeing that across the aisle.

  4. Never been diverted for medical but a few times for weather. That’s annoying because then you generally have to spend a night in another state or country.

  5. We were diverted on a flight from PHL to LAX. It was a grandfather who was traveling with his daughter and grandchild. I think we landed in Las Vegas. He was not doing well, and after calling for doctors on board the flight, I think a nurse was found. All I remember is the flight attendants taking turns doing CPR on him in the aisle of the plane for a long time – they were sweating and it was serious work and they were determined to keep him alive. Sadly he did not make it. But then there was all sort of paperwork the flight crew had to do before we left again. I’m not sure about connections as I was happy to get home and sad for the traveler. I know we had some Spanish speaking people on board and the flight crew asked for Spanish speakers who could explain to them what was happening.

  6. That’s my biggest fear about flying and traveling in general is getting sick!

  7. We all know in 2016 WiFi is more important than people 90+. : )

  8. what ever the reason is when people are suffering in plane it has to divert because life is more important than any other thing.

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