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Neal Chatterjee
September 21, 2021

Cardiac arrest during air travel: a citizen’s crucial role

Having a cardiac arrest at an airport or on an airplane may be relatively safer than other (non-hospital) locations.
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Though some may find airports to be a stressful place, new research suggests that having a cardiac arrest at an airport or on an airplane may be relatively safer than other (non-hospital) locations.

Investigators at the University of Washington School of Medicine reviewed 143 cardiac arrest cases involving travelers at the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport from 2004 to 2019. Nearly 40% of the 143 people survived the events – much higher than the 10% survival rate seen across all U.S. out-of-hospital cardiac arrests.

The researchers wanted to understand the incidence, interventions and outcomes of cardiac arrests in the controlled environments of airports and airplanes, said lead researcher Dr. Neal Chatterjee, a cardiologist at the UW School of Medicine.

“Our findings emphasize that cardiac arrest in travelers is survivable and that early resuscitation interventions matter,” Chatterjee said. The paper was published today in the Journal of the American Heart Association.

The study’s starting point was based on the Federal Aviation Administration’s 2004 mandate that AEDs be aboard all commercial jets that cross the United States. These portable machines often can deliver lifesaving shocks if deployed soon after a cardiac arrest.

“AEDs help responders understand the underlying heart rhythm at the time of cardiac arrest. This is one of the critical links in the chain of actions that contribute to patients’ survival,” Chatterjee said. “In our study, all the survivors of an on-plane arrest had an AED applied and shock delivered before EMS (emergency medical services) arrived.”

The 143 cardiac arrests were divided into two groups: on-plane (34) and off-plane (109) events.

Off-plane events were more frequently witnessed (89% to 74%) and more frequently “shockable” (72% vs. 50%) than on-plane events.


Written by Brian Donahue. Additional Edits by Julia Campbell.