Introduction: In-flight medical and surgical emergencies (IMEs) onboard commercial aircrafts occur quite commonly. However, little epidemiological research exists concerning these incidents.
Methods: Thirty-two European airlines were asked to provide anonymous data on medical flight reports of IMEs for the years 2002 to 2007. The total number of incidents was correlated to revenue passenger kilometers (rpk). Additionally, on-board births and deaths, flight diversions, flight routes (continental/intercontinental) and involvement of a physician or medical professional in providing therapy were analysed.
Results: Only four airlines, of which two participated in this study, were able to provide the necessary data. A total of 10,189 cases of IMEs were analysed. Syncope was the most common medical condition reported (5307 cases, 53.5%) followed by gastrointestinal disorders (926 cases, 8.9%) and cardiac conditions (509 cases, 4.9%). The most common surgical conditions were thrombosis (47 cases, 0.5%) and appendicitis (27 cases, 0.25%). In 2.8% of all IMEs, an aircraft diversion was performed. In 86% of cases, a physician or medical professional was involved in providing therapy. A mean (standard deviation) of 14 (+/- 2.3, 10.8 to 16.6 interquartile range) IMEs per billion rpk was calculated.
Conclusions: The study demonstrates that although aviation is regulated by a variety of national and international laws, standardised documentation of IMEs is inadequate and needs further development.
Trial registration: ClinicalTrials.gov NCT00713102.