An In-Flight Medical Emergency Turns Into A (Second) Unintended Delay

Up until now, I’ve only had one emergency landing.  I’ve had a couple of diversions that ended up not amounting to much, and one issue of “warm brakes“.  That’s probably within the margin of error for the number of times I should have experienced a diversion.

Unfortunately, we had a passenger get ill on my United Airlines flight from Seattle to IAD yesterday.  She had all the symptoms of a heart attack and the crew did a great job stabilizing her.  We diverted about an hour or so into the flight and landed in Billings, Montana.

The passenger looked very stable getting off the plane which was good news.  I’ve never had a medical diversion so I didn’t know what to expect.  To be clear, my criticism of what happened next has no bearing on the person who took ill.  I feel badly that she had to endure it and I’m thankful we were able to land in time and get her proper medical attention.

This was a rare occurrence where I was actually sitting up near the pointy end of the plane, so I was at least a bit more comfortable.  However, we ended up sitting there for another 90 minutes before taking off.  In the beginning the pilot told us they were finishing up paperwork to document the supplies they used.

After a while, it became clear there were other problems. There were a number of discussions, radio conversations, etc.  as well as people coming in and out of the cockpit.  I was able to figure out from overhearing a few conversations and asking questions that we didn’t have enough supplies to legally take off.

Now, I don’t consider myself an expert on FAA rules, but I was kind of surprised United didn’t keep backup supplies at the airport to access.  They service Billings, though through a subsidiary that flies for United Express.  I would expect that the airlines must anticipate diversions and should be able to plan appropriately for them, though it didn’t seem the case in this example.

After telling us a few times we would be leaving shortly, the pilot finally told us we could deplane and get food in the terminal.  Since I hadn’t been served my meal yet, I decided to get off in search of food.  He asked us to stay close since he wasn’t sure how long it would take to find the supplies.  It only took about 10 minutes before we were summoned back to the plane, all systems go.

The disjointed nature of the timeline suggests to me that they thought the issues could be resolved quickly but then hit a snag.  Couple that with an apology from the crew and an offer of compensation to everyone on the plane, and all this suggests things didn’t proceed as planned.

But, having never been a part of a medical diversion before, I’m not sure.  Has anyone else experienced a medical diversion?  How long were you on the ground for?


  1. I was on a DL red-eye from LAX to ATL a few years ago when we had a medical emergency and landed in ABQ. The pilot announced we had a medical emergency and would be landing soon. Surprisingly he didn’t say where we’d be landing.

    I guessed ABQ judging from the time we had been airborne and knowing our flight path. Didn’t know it was ABQ for sure until the paramedics entered the plane.

    I too was in the pointy end of the plane and did not see where the ill passenger was. It took them about 10 minutes to take the pax off the plane and we were there maybe another 30 minutes and then proceeded to ATL.

    So I don’t think your experience is too much out of the ordinary.

      1. ABQ is a larger airport, obviously, than BIL and is also serviced by DL mainline so that may have been part of the reason for the quicker turnaround. Plus we had probably burned off more fuel than you had and thus had a softer landing.
        But who knows.

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