Medical facilities urged for U.S. planes Industry reverses historic position on emergency care

January 26, 1998|By CHICAGO TRIBUNE

WASHINGTON -- After years of brushing aside concerns about in-flight medical emergencies with the admonition that commercial airplanes cannot be flying hospitals, the Air Transport Association is drafting a recommendation that most U.S. passenger jets be equipped with expanded emergency medical kits and portable defibrillators.

Sources familiar with the process said that what is certain to be viewed as a watershed recommendation is being prepared by a consortium of airline medical directors on behalf of the ATA, the airline industry's principal trade organization and lobbying group.

The ATA medical directors met here this month to discuss the substance of the recommendation, the sources said. The same day, Delta Air Lines announced it would become the second U.S. airline to equip its fleet with emergency medical kits and defibrillators, which can reverse many cases of fatal cardiac arrest with an electric shock.

An ATA spokesman, David Fuscus, declined to comment on the contents of the recommendation.

Asked whether the ATA was concerned that the addition of defibrillators and emergency medical kits, which together weigh just 20 pounds, threatened to turn airplanes into flying hospitals, Fuscus replied, "Certainly not.

"We're just trying to meet the needs of our passengers," Fuscus said.

Observers say it is unusual for the airlines to make significant improvements to passenger safety without a directive from the Federal Aviation Administration, particularly in an area where PTC they have long contended no enhancements were needed.

Last July, to the surprise of its competitors, American Airlines became the first U.S. airline to begin carrying defibrillators on some flights. American now says it will have defibrillators and hospital-style emergency medical kits on all its flights by the end of 1999.

Industry observers believe Delta's decision to follow American's lead, combined with the prospect of a formal recommendation by the ATA, is likely to make it more difficult for other carriers not to take similar steps.

A spokesman for Northwest Airlines, the nation's fourth-largest carrier, said last week it was "very likely" that that carrier would join American and Delta "in the near future."

That would leave Chicago-based United Airlines as the only one among the top four U.S. carriers without the means to treat cardiac arrest or several other acute illnesses that occur with some frequency in the air.

The ATA recommendation is expected to draw heavily on a just-released ATA report that more than 10,000 passengers aboard nine U.S. airlines experienced in-flight medical emergencies during 1996, or more than 28 emergencies a day -- far higher than the two to three per day estimated by the FAA in 1991.

"In the past, individual airlines have collected information in different ways, making it difficult to determine exactly what was happening in our skies," said ATA President Carol Hallett. "We now have solid information and can make fact-based decisions on what medical equipment is appropriate on-board aircraft."

Pub Date: 1/26/98

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