Heart attacks on a plane aren’t common, but they do happen. Airline flight crews are well trained to deal with medical emergencies and have procedures in place to provide lifesaving support to passengers who have a heart attack.

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More than 2.75 billion passengers fly each year around the globe. Having a heart attack on a plane isn’t common, but the sheer volume of air passengers each year means that medical emergencies do happen.

The number of medical emergencies has been estimated at 24 to 130 per 1 million passengers. Sudden heart problems make up about 8% of emergencies.

According to a 2021 study, having a cardiac arrest while flying, or at an airport, is associated with a higher chance of survival than having a cardiac arrest elsewhere. This is due to factors such as access to automated external defibrillators (an electronic device that applies an electric shock to restore the rhythm of a fibrillating heart) and the presence of multiple bystanders.

Although a cardiac arrest can have many causes, a heart attack is a common cause.

In this article, we explore what happens when you have a heart attack on a plane and how flying affects your heart.

Flight crew members are trained to deal with emergency medical situations aboard flights. If somebody is having a medical emergency, it’s important to immediately alert a flight crew member.

Since 2004, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has required commercial airlines in the United States to have the following:

  • at least one flight attendant trained in advanced cardiac life support
  • automated external defibrillators
  • an emergency medical kit that contains supplies, such as:
    • CPR masks
    • emergency medications and pain relievers
    • intravenous (IV) administration sets
    • certain lifesaving medications

Commercial airplanes also have telecommunication capabilities to consult emergency doctors on the ground. Some airlines have doctors available for consultation 24 hours a day so that the flight crew can receive real-time advice.

Your flight crew may also request help from medical professionals who may be traveling on board. On a 2003 flight, a woman traveling from Manchester in the United Kingdom to Florida experienced a heart attack but survived thanks to the help of 15 cardiologists who were traveling to a conference.

Chances of surviving a heart attack on a plane

Having certain heart emergencies on a plane or while in an airport is associated with a better chance of survival than having a heart emergency in other locations.

According to the American Heart Association, only 9.1% of people who had a cardiac arrest outside of a hospital in the United States survived until hospital discharge in 2021.

In a 2021 study, researchers identified 143 cases of cardiac arrest between 2004 and 2019 in people over the age of 18 traveling through the Seattle–Tacoma International Airport. Of these, 34 occurred on planes and the remainder occurred in the airport.

According to this study, experiencing cardiac arrest in the airport was associated with a 44% chance of surviving until hospital discharge, while experiencing cardiac arrest on a plane was associated with a 15% chance of survival.

What’s the difference between a cardiac arrest and a heart attack?

Many people mistakenly refer to cardiac arrest as a heart attack, but the two conditions are different. A heart attack, or myocardial infarction, occurs when an artery that supplies your heart with blood is blocked.

Cardiac arrest is when your heart suddenly stops beating. Heart attacks are a common cause of cardiac arrest, but cardiac arrest can be caused by many other heart conditions.

Learn more about the difference between heart attacks and cardiac arrest.

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Heart attacks and cardiac arrest are relatively rare on commercial flights compared with the number of people who travel each year.

In the previously mentioned 2021 study, researchers estimated that 350 air travel–related cases of cardiac arrest occur in the United States each year and 2,000 cases occur globally. They estimated that about a quarter of these cases occur on planes.

Flying is safe for most people, but a number of factors related to travel may increase your risk of heart problems, especially if you have a preexisting heart condition such as heart failure. Factors that may put additional stress on your heart while flying include:

Lower oxygen levels due to lower air pressure in an airplane may lead to:

  • decreased atmospheric oxygen levels
  • increased heart rate
  • increased contraction of your heart

Prolonged immobility is also a risk factor for blood clots. The risk of venous thromboembolism, a blood clot in a vein, is about three times higher in people on long distant flights than in the general population.

If you had a recent uncomplicated heart attack, it’s generally recommended that you wait at least 2 weeks before flying if your condition is stable. An exercise stress test is generally recommended if you had an ST elevation myocardial infarction (STEMI) heart attack and didn’t undergo revascularization (a procedure to restore blood flow to your heart).

A STEMI heart attack is a heart attack characterized by a completely blocked artery.

It’s generally recommended that you avoid flying until your condition is stable if you had complications from your heart attack. It’s also important to talk with a cardiologist about any travel plans you have and to understand what is and isn’t safe for you to do.

How to reduce complications when flying

If you have cardiovascular disease, you can minimize the risk of complications when traveling by:

  • staying well hydrated while you’re flying
  • getting up and moving around frequently, if possible
  • regularly stretching or flexing your feet, ankles, and legs while in your airplane seat
  • packing your medications in your carry-on luggage and not putting them in your checked bags
  • keeping a list of your medications with you in case your medications get lost
  • ensuring that you bring enough medication with you in the event of travel delays
  • being aware of time zone differences when adjusting your medications
  • carrying a copy of your most recent electrocardiogram (EKG)
  • carrying your pacemaker card if you have a pacemaker
  • letting the airline know ahead of time about any special needs you may have
  • discussing any concerns you may have about traveling with a heart condition with a cardiologist

Although heart attacks on a plane aren’t common, they do happen. According to data, the chance of surviving a heart emergency on a plane or at an airport is better than having a heart emergency elsewhere.

Flight crew members are trained to deal with heart attacks and other emergency medical situations on flights. All commercial flights in the United States are required to have a crew member trained in advanced cardiac life support and to carry automated external defibrillators.

Flying can increase stress on your heart and may increase your risk of a cardiac complications if you have prior heart disease. Most people with well-controlled cardiovascular disease can fly safely, but it’s best to talk with a doctor or other healthcare professional ahead of time if you have concerns.