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Passenger dies in-flight, family says airline to blame

The family of a passenger who died of a heart attack on an American Airlines flight earlier this year is blaming the carrier for food poisoning and for allowing the man to board a flight while noticeably ill, according to the Miami New Times.

Othon Cortes died shortly after eating a meal on a Barcelona-to-New York flight on May 18, according to a lawsuit filed by the man's family. While at JFK airport, Cortes “became pale, experienced ‘sharp stomach cramps’ and was suddenly very thirsty.” When Cortes, who was traveling with his wife, boarded a subsequent flight to Miami, his illness was “expressed and obvious” to American Airlines, but the couple were allowed on the plane anyway, according to the widow’s account in the article.

On the plane to Miami, Cortes suffered from nausea and shortness of breath, and eventually had a heart attack and died, the Miami New Times reported, noting that a suit was filed by the family against American Airlines and Sky Chefs, the airplane catering company that provided the meal on the first flight.

The lawsuit stated that the airline was negligent in allowing  the man to board the domestic flight, failing to provide medical attention, and waiting too long to pull an emergency landing.

American Airlines could not comment on the case as it's an active lawsuit, said spokesperson Tim Smith. "In general, I can tell you that our aircraft are equipped with medical supplies approved by the FAA and our crews are trained in numerous procedures related to any type of medical emergency onboard the aircraft in-flight," Smith said.

Msnbc.com reached experts from the government, medical field and travel industry who spoke generally about food safety and boarding procedures. Their comments were not specifically about the case detailed in the Miami New Times article.

“We’re not aware of receiving any complaints regarding passengers whom the airlines should have denied boarding due to illness but who nevertheless were allowed to fly,” said Bill Mosley, a spokesman with the U.S. Department of Transportation. It's usually the other way around, he said, with customers filing complaints because they were denied boarding.

Regarding food illnesses, the department’s database captures general complaints about unsatisfactory food service, but does not have a more specific subcategory. “Most of these complaints involve the taste of the food or that there is not enough or no food available,” Mosley said.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has statutory authority over the safety of airline food, he said, so when DOT receives airline food poisoning complaints, they are sent directly to the FDA and are not necessarily entered in the database. 

The actual number of food poising incidents contracted while flying is not easily tracked, the FDA said, as the airline catering industry has elements of food manufacturing, retail, and institutional food operations, that in addition to oversight by FDA, is highly regulated by multiple federal, state, and local health authorities.

Food poisoning does sometime occur as a result of airline food, but “it’s very rare,” said Henry H. Harteveldt, a travel industry analyst and co-founder of the Atmosphere Research Group, a market research company. “Airlines and their catering companies take a number of steps to ensure the meals that are served are safe.”

Robert L. Quigley, M.D., regional medical director of the Americas Region for International SOS, a health care, medical and security assistance company that provides emergency response to travelers, said food poisoning symptoms typically manifest 12 to 24 hours after ingestion, “although certain types of very virulent bacteria do manifest within six hours.” It is rare, he added, that food poisoning symptoms would manifest in less than six hours, but not impossible. On the other hand, heart attacks occur in-flight “with much more frequency than the public realize.”

Dr. Quigley also said that while symptoms of food poisoning, such as dehydration, might factor in to a heart attack, it is uncommon for food poisoning to be the sole or primary cause of cardiac arrest.

Boarding while ill raises interesting issues for both passengers and carriers.

“There is some personal responsibility here,” said Steve Lott, spokesman for Airlines for America, formerly known as the Air Transport Association of America, (ATA), a trade group representing the principal U.S. airlines. “It’s the passenger’s judgment that’s the most important.” However, “in the case of a medical emergency in flight, the airlines have a lot of resources available,” he said.

“Airline employees are not trained medical professionals. Travelers must take responsibility for themselves,” said Harteveldt, the travel industry analyst. However, passengers should make airlines aware of that they are not well at the first opportunity. “Most airlines will work with customers to get them the medical attention they need,” he said.

When should a person not fly?

“As a medical assistance company, we get calls about that on a daily basis,” Dr. Quigley said. “I don’t think we can expect the commercial airlines to have medical screeners at the door of every flight. The onus is on the passenger to make that assessment,” and to speak with a doctor or nurse if they are concerned.

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