SitNews - Stories in the News - Ketchikan, Alaska

An Airline Upgrade You Don't Want
By Dave Kiffer


June 09, 2007

Ketchikan, Alaska - Tired of sitting in a cramped economy class on a long plane flight?

Try dying.

jpg Dave Kiffer

It seems that an elderly woman recently died on a flight from India to London and British Airways upgraded her corpse to First Class.

This, of course, was a horrifying turn of events for the other first class passengers who paid somewhere around 250,000 Indian Rupees (about $5,800) for the privilege of not being squeezed in with the steerage, uh, economy folks.

On one hand, it seems very unseemly to even try to sympahize with a group of wealthy people who are "inconvenienced" by what is truly a tragedy to someone else's family.

But on the other hand, you have admit that waking up from an in-flight nap to find that there is a deceased person in the next seat has got to be a pretty gut wrenching experience.

British Airways says that about 10 passengers a year expire in flight on their planes and it is up to the flight crews to decide what to do with the body until the plane reaches its destination.

For safety and health reasons, the body can not be placed in the aisle or the galley. Most frequently it is placed in an available empty seat and on this flight that seat happened to be in first class.

Naturally, this got me to pondering how our "national" carrier - Alaska Airlines - would handle the situation (and you can bet this sort of "story" would never end up on Alaska's self-congratulatory, super-duper heartwarming 75th anniversary website).

Alaska has a lot of experience dealing with unusual - often dead - cargo. I remember my wife years ago reporting after a trip to Anchorage that she knew she was really in Alaska when she saw a couple of moose racks come out on the baggage conveyer. Not something you would often see at, for example, Forbes Field in Topeka, Kansas.

I had a similar "only in Alaska" experience many years ago when I was at the site of a large plane crash and noticed a couple of deer heads in the wreckage. My first thought was "wow, what are the odds of a plane hitting a couple of deer?" Then I realized they had been in the cargo hold.

Anyway, how would Alaska handle such a situation?

You can't open the cargo hold in mid-flight, so that would be out.

And since there is never an open seat in First Class (bless those $50 upgrades!), the British Airways solution wouldn't work.

The overhead racks might be big enough, but that would entail requiring some of the passengers to re-stow their 12 per person carry-on items and getting Alaskans to cut back on carry-ons is nearly as impossible as getting them to "check" their personal weapons of mass destruction in their baggage. (you laugh, but some idiot was recently detained at the Anchorage airport for trying to bring a loaded 357 magnum through security. He said it was okay because he had a concealed gun permit. I don't think so.)

Perhaps they could put a trap-door in the floor of one of those new 737-800s so any deceased passengers could be easily "upgraded" into the cargo hold.

No, come to think of it, since most of the AK flights seem to be "overbooked" anyway, we don't want to encourage our "national" airline into thinking it could really start to employ "steerage" class.

Besides, the next step beyond that would be to go back into the old days when some who expired in mid trip was buried at sea. Imagine a "buried" body landing on some farm house in Kansas. Not a good "discussion opportunity" for the public relations staff.

While the actuarial staff at Alaska and other airlines ponders just how to deal with such a situation (you can imagine they saw copies of the British Airways story long before I did), at least one airline is already planning for such an eventuality.

According to media reports, Singapore Airlines has a specially designed "corpse cupboard" on its long distance flights such as the 17-hour marathon trip from Singapore to Los Angeles.

Years ago, my wife traveled to Australia and reported that Qantas had smaller "cupboards" to put sleeping babies in the bulkhead, so Singapore Airlines is just carrying that type of service to its "cradle to grave" logical conclusion.

Since the Singapore jet is over the ocean most of the flight, it couldn't land to remove the dead person even if it wanted to. So near the exit doors is a "cupboard" big enough to store an average sized person, if there isn't space to lay the body out on a row of seats.

Inside the cupboard are restraints to keep the body from bouncing around in turbulence, something that apparently further unnerved the British Airways passengers during their flight with the dead woman. Her body reportedly kept sliding out of the seatbelt and on to the floor.

Actually Singapore Airlines is just following the example that most of the cruise ships have adopted. I read several years ago that - on average - half a dozen passengers die shipboard in Alaska each month. As a result, ships have a holding area for bodies until the next port is reached and proper authorities can be contacted.

Then again, maybe Singapore Airlines is too far out in front of the pack. Maybe the airlines actuaries will just decide to try to limit their exposure by adding a full medical "work up" to the boarding process in order to cut down on the likelihood of a passenger terminating in mid-flight.

We might as well get a pre-flight physical, we're already just about naked (no coat, no belt, no shoes!) by the time we reach the gate.



Dave Kiffer is a freelance writer living in Ketchikan, Alaska.
Contact Dave at

Dave Kiffer ©2007

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