NEW YORK - When Rubina Husain's husband died aboard an airliner, she shielded her 10-year-old daughter's eyes so she wouldn't see her daddy's body carried through the cabin.
Then, with the corpse covered up and tucked away in a rear galley, the passengers who had stood around and stared after the man collapsed returned to eating and chatting. The Athens-to-New York jetliner continued on to its destination for eight or nine more hours. And the in-flight movie was shown as planned.
"It felt like a never-ending flight," says Husain, whose husband died in 1998 after an asthma attack. "I felt like: Why doesn't this plane just crash and kill me? Why don't I just die?"
Abid Husain, who couldn't be saved despite cardiopulmonary resuscitation and an epinephrine shot from a doctor friend who was aboard, was one of hundreds of people who have died on airplanes in recent years - a dreadful and often traumatizing experience for family members and fellow passengers who are forced to take a close-up look at frailty and death and share their journey in close quarters with a corpse.
"It's one of the most overwhelmingly emotional situations possible," said Heidi MacFarlane, a spokeswoman for MedAire, a company that has doctors available on the ground to advise flight crews in a medical emergency. "When you're the one sitting next to the remains, it can be shocking and upsetting."
The macabre phenomenon has received renewed attention with the recent death of a 44-year-old woman on a flight from Haiti to New York. Her family complained that the airline did not do enough to respond. When a passenger is stricken aboard a plane, flight crews and travelers with medical training often pull out emergency medical supplies and rush to save the patient's life in full view of other passengers.
If the person dies, the crew often throws a blanket over the corpse or puts it in a body bag, an item routinely kept on some planes. The dead passenger is sometimes placed on the floor in a galley area, or kept buckled in his or her seat, since a corpse cannot be allowed to block certain emergency exits. Pilots may consider making an emergency landing, but often they keep going.
Airlines are not required to track or report the medical incidents they handle, so an exact tally of in-flight deaths is hard to find. But fatalities and serious illnesses on airplanes are rare when compared with the large number of people who fly.
MedAire is on call for about one-third of the world's commercial flights and counted 89 deaths in 2006. That means that if a similar death rate occurs on the other flights, the number of annual deaths exceeds 260.
MedAire says that each passenger boarding one of the flights monitored by the company in 2006 had at least a 1-in-7.6 million chance of dying on board in a medical incident.
People are far more likely to die in a plane crash. In 2007, 1 in 1.3 million travelers who boarded a commercial flight anywhere in the world died in an incident in which the plane was damaged, according to the International Air Transport Association. In 2006, the rate was 1 in 1.5 million.
The Federal Aviation Administration requires airlines to stock certain emergency medical supplies, such as defibrillators, syringes, and epinephrine, and train flight attendants in CPR and some first aid. FAA spokesman Les Dorr said he was unaware of any policies that specifically address what should be done if someone dies in flight. The airlines make those decisions on their own.