Fly the friendly skies

Nearly two billion people fly each year. More than half a million people are aloft at any given time and on average a medical “event” will occur for every 30,000, of whom 3% will die. Dead people fly all the time. Anne McDonough at the Washington Post says that a dozen deaths occur each year on an airline she doesn’t name.


Recently two women were arrested in Liverpool for attempting to take a dead relative to Germany with them. The police suspected they were trying to save the $7,000+ they would have paid in repatriation charges by getting him back to his birthplace in an airline seat. That prompted One newspaper commenter to wonder why it was more expensive to transport a corpse than a live passenger. “Why do they charge more for a dead body than a live one. They don’t require any attention, food, drinks, blankets or pillows.”

Maybe it’s because they are treated better in many other ways. has a fascinating thread devoted to the subject of transporting dead bodies on passenger aircraft. The living really do fly with the dead, and far more frequently than Anne McDonough believes. Schipol Airport in the Netherlands has a fully operational mortuary with a 40 cadaver capacity. “On average the mortuary deals with approximately 2000 bodies per year, about 60 % of which are in repatriation or transit to foreign places of burial and 40% returning to the Netherlands.” They travel in airtrays in cargo. “The airtray is always marked with the words HUMAN REMAINS, the persons name, flight number, origin, and destination. Most people are with in caskets, but on a few occasions I have received them in alternate containers. One of the most difficult countries to send a person to is Italy”.

And that’s because Italy imposes so many entry requirements on a corpse that it would be virtually impossible for a terrorist to gain entry, provided he was already dead.


The person must be embalmed

The death certificate must be translated to Italian

Their must a be letter from the medical examiner stating that the person has not died of any communicable diseases and that must be translated into Italian.

Person must be with in a sealed casket

A letter must be written by the funeral director describing how the outer container was built, and what it is made of.

There must be an approval from the Italian consulate, and sometimes they will X -Ray the person who has died.

When finished the outer container, the casket, and person who has died can weigh up to 400 lbs.

I believe I got it all, yet their are other documents such as passports, naturalization papers, and many more which are needed. The process can take up to a week sometimes depending what day of the week it is, and if the person dies around a holiday.

By the time the relatives get through that they will wonder why repatriation doesn’t cost more than $7,000. Compared to the cursory examination and care the living get, the dead travel positively first-class. Among other things, they get to lie down, something you have to get a business or first class ticket to do. The Nigerian underwear bomber wouldn’t have stood a chance of getting into Italy even if his father hadn’t visited the authorities and told them his son was a terrorist. According to Australian safety officials the increasing misery of air travel — the length of the flights, the cramped circumstances, the aging profile of travelers — may be behind the rise in deaths per hundred thousand. For many, especially the elderly and the infirm, flying has become an ordeal. Raise your hands, stand over here, take off your shoes, take off your coat. Can’t bring liquids aboard, can’t go to the bathroom an hour before landing. Can’t, can’t, can’t.


One of the things you absolutely, positively can’t do is smoke. Time was when you could not only smoke, but you’d get complimentary cigarettes to light up. The website Tobacco Control has an illustrated history of the saga of smoking aloft. During aviation’s infancy in 1920s and 30s smoking was promoted and popularized, linked with the sophistication and daring of glamorous aviators and aviatrixes.

In the 1940s cigarette companies provided sample packs to fliers, even though smoking was not permitted. From the 1950s to the 1970s, everybody smoked. Although no one may believe it now, there were ashtrays on every airline seat. After concerns about the danger of tobacco smoke became widespread, attempts were made at first to divide the cabin into smoking and non-smoking sections. Eventually the fear of second-hand smoke produced the situation we know today. You can’t, can’t, can’t smoke. Especially in the toilet.

Very recently, a Qatari diplomat tried to smoke a cigarette in the lavatory. An alert air marshal noticed him taking an inordinately long time in the cubicle, questioned him about the smoke in the room he had vacated and was told “I’m lighting my shoes on fire.” That scrambled 2 F-16s, earned the diplomat a trip downtown to the station and caused the airplane and its passengers to sit on the runway for an hour while it was cleared. The living were mystified. “There were no announcements, nothing about your carry-on bags or tray tables.” The dead didn’t mind.


International Design Magazine sponsored a contest for ideas to make air travel better, but the best anyone could come up with was a proposal by three ad agencies to ” to help flyers mentally inhabit a more pleasant place: the land underneath them. Their proposal is an open-source documentary film channel (viewed on a standard passenger seat screen) showing footage cued to views seen from the windows. “Terrain that seems barren and empty comes to life through facts, videos, and maps, helping eliminate the boredom of long flights,” claims the proposal booklet, full of gorgeous stills of oceans, buttes, and street views. The Flyover Channel would bring the traveler ‘from the the hidden fjords of Norway, to the bluegrass music of Appalachia, to the masala-scented cooking of Southern India.'” In other words they would try to make the passengers forget they were on a plane.

But the problems may run deeper. Maybe one reason air travel is so uncomfortable is because its basic system design was rooted in the pre-terrorism, pre-mass travel, short-ranged airframe age. It was meant for another world, one long since vanished. All that remains, like the sealed ashtrays you sometimes find in old airframes, are ill-adapted vestiges. But not everything that is old is being discarded. One idea making a comeback are D-Day style rows facing each other. Known as Design Q, it “is intended to save space and money and could see 50 per cent more passengers packed on to each plane.”


Another downside to the seating design is that food carts would not be able to pass down the plane as the aisles are too narrow, so food distribution would be difficult. … Mr Guy said: ‘Military personnel are used to traveling in that way and have had a positive reaction to the idea.

They also didn’t mind jumping out of the airplane to go into combat against the warrior elite of Nazi Germany, so perhaps the comparison isn’t very apt. How much worse can air travel get?

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