Background: Passengers who have ventricular fibrillation aboard commercial aircraft rarely survive, owing to the delay in obtaining emergency care and defibrillation.
Methods: In 1997, a major U.S. airline began equipping its aircraft with automated external defibrillators. Flight attendants were trained in the use of the defibrillator and applied the device when passengers had a lack of consciousness, pulse, or respiration. The automated external defibrillator was also used as a monitor for other medical emergencies, generally at the direction of a passenger who was a physician. The electrocardiogram that was obtained during each use of the device was analyzed by two arrhythmia specialists for appropriateness of use. We analyzed data on all 200 instances in which the defibrillators were used between June 1, 1997, and July 15, 1999.
Results: Automated external defibrillators were used for 200 patients (191 on the aircraft and 9 in the terminal), including 99 with documented loss of consciousness. Electrocardiographic data were available for 185 patients. The administration of shock was advised in all 14 patients who had electrocardiographically documented ventricular fibrillation, and no shock was advised in the remaining patients (sensitivity and specificity of the defibrillator in identifying ventricular fibrillation, 100 percent). The first shock successfully defibrillated the heart in 13 patients (defibrillation was withheld in 1 case at the family's request). The rate of survival to discharge from the hospital after shock with the automated external defibrillator was 40 percent. A total of 36 patients either died or were resuscitated after cardiac arrest. No complications arose from use of the automated external defibrillator as a monitor in conscious passengers.
Conclusions: The use of the automated external defibrillator aboard commercial aircraft is effective, with an excellent rate of survival to discharge from the hospital after conversion of ventricular fibrillation. There are not likely to be complications when the device is used as a monitor in the absence of ventricular fibrillation.