Friday, March 23, 2007

Infrequent Flyers: Death in the Skies

By now, everyone has no doubt seen something written - or heard a bad joke - about the latest British Airways passenger who died in economy class on a flight from Delhi to Heathrow. They upgraded the woman's body - and her family -  to first class for the remainder of the flight.

I'm quite sure that there's no easy way to handle this situation (although apparently Singapore Airlines has something called a "corpse cupboard" on the planes that do their long haul, 17-hour flights). Propping a body up in a toilet is one solution, I suppose, but the thought of anybody - even a dead one - trapped in one of those fetid little rooms might be too unsettling for the deceased's family. Between the bright blue "flushing liquid" and the completely ignored 'as a courtesy to your fellow passengers' note about wiping down the sink....yuck.

There's not a lot of room in the galleys for laying a body out - plus they're "preparing" airline food-stuffs there. (Want to make inedible food seem even more inedible?)  The overhead baggage containers are always way too stuffed. On a full flight where there won't be any free rows to let someone stretch out in comfort - or whatever the dead-body equivalent is.  They could use those ultra-comfy flight attendant jump seats, but would that mean a stew had to stand the entire flight?

I don't supposed anyone would be up for the airplane equivalent of burial at sea - just opening one of those pressurized doors to jettison the body could, I suppose, cause wreak all sorts of havoc in the cabin. Not to mention where the body might land...

So, I'm going to give BA some credit here and suggest that they probably made the best of an unpleasant situation.

Apparently, this is not as rare as you might think. In fact, late last fall British Airways had a death on a flight from London to Boston, and BA has said that it happens 10 or so times a year.

So, what to do, what to do.

What British Airways does is provide a post-mortem upgrade to first class for the deceased and traveling companions, and they try to keep everyone calm and collected. (That's one way to get into first class, but I think I'll still take steerage.)

British Airways flubbed this upgrade a bit. At least that's according to businessman Paul Trinder, the 15-minutes-of-fame guy sitting cross-aisle from the late lamented, and widely quoted in accounts of this flight (here taken from a The Sunday Times article picked up by Fox News):

“It was a complete mess — they seemed to have no proper plans in place to deal with the situation,” said Trinder, 54, a businessman from Brackley, Northamptonshire.

The woman died during a nine-hour flight on a Boeing 747. Trinder was catching up on sleep when he was woken by a commotion and opened his eyes to see staff manueuvering the body into a seat.

“I didn’t have a clue what was going on. The stewards just plonked the body down without saying a thing. I remember looking at this frail, sparrow-like woman and thinking she was very ill,” said Trinder.

“She kept slipping under the seatbelt and moving about with the motion of the plane. When I asked what was going on I was shocked to hear she was dead.”

Trinder was further aggravated by the wailing of the dead woman's daughter - even ear plugs couldn't block out what Trinder described as "a really intense, primal sound." Trinder tried to get a refund on his first class ticket, but, according to him, was told by BA to "get over" it.

The India Times coverage also starred Paul Trinder, but it was a bit more florid. 

"I woke to see cabin crew manoeuvring what looked like a sack of potatoes into the seat. Slowly, through the darkness, I realized it was a body. At first, I thought I was dreaming. Then I was convinced it was a big wind-up," Trinder said of his experience.

[Translation note: wind-up is Brit for practical joke.]

He added that he was frightened the body was decomposing. The relatives of the dead passenger also kept wailing throughout the flight, which further depressed him.

Fear of decomposing? Does it happen that quickly? I don't think it does unless someone has one of those ebola virus-hemorrhagic fever diseases, straight out of the movie Outbreak. In which case, Mr. Trinder, you'll have a lot bigger things to worry about than wailing family members, slip-sliding bodies, and whether or not BA will grant you a refund.

"The corpse was strapped into the seat but because of turbulence it kept slipping down on to the floor. It was horrific. The body had to be wedged in place with lots of pillows," he recalled. "Then the relatives were allowed to sit in First Class and spent the next five hours wailing and weeping."

Well, I'm sure it was no fun for Mr. Trinder, but it was probably a lot less fun for the dead woman's family, don't you think?

It also strikes me that most people in modern society tend to be pretty skittish about the dead. No, I wouldn't want to live in a world where there were dead bodies in the gutter, or where we reacted casually to death. But, let's face it: it's a part of life. Why are we all so freaked out by the thought of a dead body?

Maybe because I started attending wakes and funerals at a fairly young age - and grew up in a world where Open Casket was the only way to go - the idea of being near a dead person doesn't disturb me all that much (especially if it's a dead elderly person who has died of natural causes). Naturally, if I had to be sitting by a dead person, I would prefer it if it were accompanied by relatives who were a bit more stoic (a quiet moan or sniffle, rather than out and out wailing). And, as I said, I would sure prefer it to be a granny type rather than a young person.

What would disturb me more, quite frankly, would be sitting there amid the gawkers, a reluctant witness to a stranger's profound grief, a death voyeur when someone should be allowed private and the comfort of friends and families - not gaping strangers.

If there were room, BA should have moved everyone out of first class and given them at least partial comp. But apparently they didn't do that.

But if he were so upset, Mr. Trinder surely could have made his way to the seats in economy vacated by the dead woman and her family. BA could have given him his first class meal, his first class drinks, and maybe even given him some sort of coupon for his troubles.

Maybe there should be a policy - part of all those new Passenger Bill of Rights decrees - that states that, if there's a death, the deceased and family will be moved to the front of the plane - first class if available.

They can swap out anyone upfront or in first class who is completely wigged out by the idea of being too close to a dead body - or keening family - for their personal comfort. And swap in those passengers who were capable of not staring, rolling their eyes, and looking annoyed. They might even look for passengers of an age that would suggest that they'd suffered the loss of at least one loved-one in their life, and might be willing to actual provide a hand pat or shoulder to cry on if one were required. I suggest they start with middle aged women.

(I have a suspicion that when they have unaccompanied minors, they plonk a mom-grammy-auntie looking woman down next to them. It's sure happened to me often enough to be more than coincidence. Why not do the same for accompanied or unaccompanied dead travelers?)

Meanwhille, British Airways - at least on the part of their web site - has been mum on the subject. (A search of their site for dead body brought up an article on jet lag.)


John said...

Oh, I love this story (and your great blog)! Now, anyone who has watched those great cheese-fest Airport movies of the late 70s knows, that the 747 has a DOWNSTAIRS private galley. There is an elevator (yes, it does fit people, even dead ones) that could have taken the deceased downstairs and given everyone peace and quiet (well, I guess someone will have peace and quiet no matter where they are). Even if BA had taken the galley out of service (British "cuisine" may not warrant the full service galley that the 747 was originally equipped), the far more respectful thing for the deceased would have been to strap her in one of the flight attendant jumpseats and placed a blanket on her. I think this was as much of a discomfort for the flight attendants (Hey, instead of us being uncomfortable with a dead person in a jumpseat, let's make some stiff in First Class uncomfortable. Golly good idea!)


Of course, all of this is better than what turn-of-the-century oceanliners did with their steerage passengers: burial at sea. Imagine the Captain gliding his 747 to under 10,000 feet (to avoid depressurization), turning on the seatbelt sign on and popping the door open and instantly reviving that century old tradition?

Seriously, this was an incredible failure on the part of the inflight crew. What they should have done was to move able-bodied (read: breathing) people to First to make room for the family. Dragging a corpse from Row 60 to First Class was incredibly stupid, disrespectful and disgusting.


katrog said...

An ailine pilot who was a client once told us, when asked what happened if someone died on his plane, said "No one ever dies on my plane--they may be very, very ill--but we're not doctors or medical examiners, so we can't declare anyone to be dead."

Denial is one way to handle it, I guess.