U.S. Jets Must Now Have Defibrillators On Board

April 12, 2004 | USA Today
By Robert Davis

Starting today, every big jet in the U.S. fleet must have a defibrillator on board, making an airliner one of the safest places to have a cardiac arrest.

A Federal Aviation Administration rule, four years in the making, requires an automated external defibrillator (AED) and more advanced medical kits on all big jets. Commuter planes are exempt.

An AED is an easy-to-use device that delivers a lifesaving shock when the heart develops a deadly short-circuit known as ventricular fibrillation. When the heart is quivering in this electrical chaos, a shock must be delivered within six minutes to save the person’s life. The devices are becoming common in public places, largely because of lessons learned in the air.

When a plane is flying at 30,000 feet, it takes at least 20 minutes to land. Ten years ago, there was little chance to save a passenger in cardiac arrest while in flight.

American Airlines changed that. In 1996, the airline voluntarily put AEDs in all of its planes. In 1998, Mike Tighe of Boston became the first passenger to be saved in flight.

On a flight to Los Angeles, he collapsed while watching the in-flight movie. His wife, Dolores, a nurse, performed CPR until flight attendants arrived with a defibrillator.

“It’s such a gift,” says Mike Tighe, now 67. “Look how many people have been saved.”

American saved six of 14 cardiac arrest victims in the first two years, about 40%. Six percent to 10% are saved on average on the ground. In the six years since Tighe was saved, American has saved 46 others, including one last month.

“Today, the vast majority of them live close to normal lives,” American’s John Hotard says.

But the airlines are credited with saving more than passengers. They sent a message to other industries that any worker could save a life with just a little training.

If flight attendants can save lives, public safety officials said, why not gym staffers or office workers:

“We’re on the cusp of this right now,” says Tim Cameron, who trains United Airlines flight attendants and pilots to use AEDs. He has watched some of he 18 passengers they have saved go on to become advocates for more public access to defibrillators. “The snowball effect is just beginning.”

Not all airlines installed AEDs fast. An unknown number of people died on flights in the four years since the rule was proposed. One was Brett Stone, 28, a venture capitalist who collapsed July 27, 2000, aboard a Frontier Airlines flight to Denver. A doctor and a medic on the flight tried in vain to save Stone. Frontier later installed AEDs and was the first airline equipped to deliver a shock to a child.

Doug Willis, a spokesman for the Air Transport Association, the airlines’ trade group, says the industry is fully equipped today.

“Cardiac arrest happens frequently,” he says. “The airlines decided having these on the plane is just a good thing to do.”

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