Plane hijacked for allergic reaction: why no report from the FAA?

Photo: Getty

• The pilot diverted the San Francisco-Singapore flight to Hawaii due to a passenger’s allergic reaction.
• FAA says: United Airlines has not filed a report. Was not necessary, as the airline called the event a “precautionary landing” and not an emergency.
• However, some passengers said the diversion was “a medical emergency”.
• Captain Chesley (Sully) Sullenberger, hero of the Hudson River crash landing, talks about hijacking decision making.
• Question: How reliable is data on in-flight allergic reactions if even a major hijacking goes unrecorded?

The news of a plane hijacking linked to an allergic reaction appeared on my screen just before my own flight back to the United States from Italy. Aviation blogs reported it was a medical event, linked to a passenger’s reaction to peanuts or nuts.

Five hours into United Airlines’ September 3 evening flight from San Francisco to Singapore, the pilot diverted that flight – currently United’s longest at just over 16 hours. The plane landed in Honolulu, a detour of nearly three hours.

Allergic Living asked me to find out more. What happened; what was the condition of the passenger? What was the right allergic trigger? Was epinephrine used?

Although the hijacking disrupted the schedules of around 290 other passengers, the United Airlines communications team said little. They simply said the flight from Singapore “was diverted to Honolulu due to a medical incident. Paramedics met the landing flight to assist.

I contacted the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), assuming that because the plane had changed course and landed midair, United would have to file a report. When I first read the FAA’s response, I thought I was reading wrong because of jet lag. In short: there is no relation.

The FAA confirms that “the symptoms presented by the passengers were indicative of an allergic reaction”. They don’t know what caused the allergic reaction.

The diversion is not labeled “medical emergency”

It turns out United ‘did not declare a medical emergency for this incident’. The aviation regulator says that if the airline had declared an emergency, “they would be required to notify the FAA.” Instead, the FAA said the United flight landed in Honolulu as “a precautionary diversion in the best interest of safety.” So again, no relation.

But this is where things get contradictory. Passengers on the flight to Singapore who inquired about the diversion were told: “Your flight has been diverted to Honolulu due to a medical emergency.” Similar responses from the airline appeared on Twitter.

Food allergy reaction on plane response.
A United Tweet on the situation.

So for travelers facing an 18-hour delay and 11 additional flight hours, it was an emergency landing. But for the FAA, it was a precautionary event that did not require reporting.

I contacted William J. McGee, aviation consumer advocate, journalist and former flight operations manager. “First of all, the United Airlines crew made the right decision by diverting this flight,” he said. (McGee noted that the flight was entering the middle of the Pacific Ocean). “Their actions may have saved a life.”

McGee, who is now a senior aviation researcher at the American Economic Liberties Project, has overseen dozens of emergency diversions in his years working in airline flight operations. “Such actions are never taken lightly.”

“But it’s very odd that it hasn’t been declared a medical emergency,” McGee says. “Because frankly, if it wasn’t a medical emergency, then why divert at all?”

The Capture of Captain Sullenberger

Captain Chesley Sullenberger. Photo: Purdue University

What actually constitutes an in-flight medical emergency and how do you report it? I spoke to Captain Chesley Sullenberger, the aviation safety expert best known for his heroic 2009 emergency landing of a US Airways flight in the Hudson River.

Under federal regulations, the pilot has the ultimate authority to declare an emergency medical landing. Sullenberger spoke, not of United’s flight to Singapore, but in general of his long experience as a (now retired) pilot. He said he’s never been shy about declaring a medical emergency and thinks most commercial pilots would say the same.

When a life is at stake, for a pilot “there is a low threshold to declare an emergency. The obligation to protect and save lives is clearly understood and deeply felt by aviation professionals,” he said.

As for the difference between a precautionary landing and a medical emergency, Sullenberger said it depends on the nature and severity of the emergency, and whether the flight might require assistance and priority treatment by control. air traffic to land as soon as possible.

“There’s no downside to the pilot declaring a medical emergency for a passenger except ‘a little more paperwork’. He insists again, what’s important for a pilot is to save a life. .

Diversion and allergy data

With the hijacking of the Singapore flight, there is a larger problem. The allergy community has long known that reports of in-flight medical emergencies show a low rate of anaphylaxis, the severe form of allergic reaction. This incident raises the question: what is recorded and how complete is the data on in-flight medical emergencies?

Map showing where the food allergy reaction on the plane took place.
Map showing the hijacking of the Singapore flight. Photo:

How do you know if serious allergic reactions on board planes are becoming more frequent? In recent articles, a growing number of doctors have spoken to Allergic Living about helping anaphylaxis cases in the air. If airlines classify hijacking as a medical “precaution” and not an emergency, are we hearing about every case of in-flight anaphylaxis?

“The reason this is important is that safety and health issues in aviation are handled to a large extent by statistics,” says McGee.

“The FAA responds to issues and then writes regulations based in part on the number of reported cases of a given issue.” He wonders how the FAA can truly measure the severity of in-flight allergic emergencies if airlines don’t always report such incidents to the FAA.

Food allergy reaction on plane response.
United’s notification to a passenger of a flight diversion.

I mentioned this concern about the “emergency” terminology to Captain Sullenberger. “It is imperative that we have a clear idea of ​​how many such events are occurring, so that we can plan for them and put in place the best procedures to handle them,” he said.

Allergic Living recently reported that in less than a year and over two flights, Dr. Kimberly Blumenthal has assisted with in-flight allergy emergencies. During his JetBlue flight, the Massachusetts General allergist did not have to fill out a report. Yet on her Delta flight, she did. Both plane incidents were allergic reactions, but only one was recorded. So what percentage of these reactions are tracked?

There are several issues with the limited data we have on in-flight reactions. On my No Nut Traveler blog, for example, I receive testimonials of in-flight reactions that are not reported to airline staff. (They are usually self-treated by passengers.) Additionally, it is unclear whether airlines are required to report an incident if the emergency medical kit is not opened.

“Critical need” to report incidents

The food allergy epidemic is growing worldwide. Yet the data we have on allergic reactions on airplanes is not solid. That’s why I look forward to a global survey of food allergies and air travel, which Northwestern University’s Center for Food Allergy and Asthma Research (CFAAR) will launch soon.

Of the Singapore flight hijacking, McGee concludes that “it is critical that all of these events be fully reported and investigated. How can we expect airlines and the FAA to stockpile enhanced medical kits and prepare for such life-threatening emergencies if real crises go unreported? »

I agree; transparency matters. It’s not about an airline or a pilot, it’s about capturing an accurate picture of anaphylaxis events in the sky. If there are holes in the data that is collected, it won’t help anyone – not the pilot, not the sick passenger, not the doctor called for help.

I hope the passenger with the allergic reaction on the flight that diverted to Hawaii had a good outcome. But given current reports, we may never know.

Related reading:
MD launches the debate: why no auto-injectors, other drugs in airplane medical kits?
Why your plane’s medical kit may be running out of drugs like epinephrine
It happened to this: ‘Borrowing’ epinephrine on airplanes

Amanda J. Marsh