Giant plane raises fear of medical emergencies  
  • 20 May 2005
  • news service
  • Mick Hamer
Crisis in mid-air

WHEN the giant Airbus A380 made its maiden flight on 27 April, the airlines' publicity focused on plans to install bars, beauty salons, gymnasiums and even double beds on board. But there was little mention of one less glamorous fact. The A380's ability to carry twice the number of passengers as many of today's planes will almost double the chances that on any given flight someone will need urgent

 medical attention. Yet the air transport industry appears unprepared for this, New Scientist has discovered.

Medical emergencies are the most common reason for diverting aircraft (see Graphic). And as more elderly people take to the air, the frequency of medical emergencies and consequently the number of diversions is likely to increase. Though airlines are not required to report the number of medical incidents on board, a 2000 UK government report showed that the number can be as high as 1 in 1400 passengers flown. And a recent US study of one airline showed that 8 per cent of on-board medical incidents resulted in the aircraft being diverted to the nearest airport.

In a medical emergency, it is up to the pilot to decide if the plane should divert, and to choose where to land from a list of suitable airports In making the decision, the pilot will also listen to any doctors or medical personnel that are on board. "I would take medical advice," says Eric Moody, a retired British Airways pilot. "You don't want a passenger to die. But I think I would prefer to continue to where [the aircraft] can be handled properly."

And that's where the crunch comes. Airports around the world are still gearing up for the A380, and handling the behemoth properly is no easy task. The A380's 80-metre wingspan is 15 metres wider than the Boeing 747-400's, and some taxiways are being moved to give adequate clearance. It will also be heavier than the Boeing, so runways are being strengthened to take the increased weight.

But the most expensive part of the work is adapting the terminal buildings. The plane needs two loading jetties, one for the main deck and one for the upper deck. Only 20 airports will have terminal buildings that can cope with the A380 by 2006, although this will rise to 60 by 2010.

Given this shortage of airports equipped for the A380, the pilot may be forced to divert an A380 to one of the 200 airports around the world that can handle a Boeing 747. "In theory the A380 will be able to land anywhere that a 747 can," says Joan Sullivan Garrett, the chief executive officer of Medaire in Phoenix, Arizona, which provides medical assistance to 80 of the world's leading airlines. "But if you're asking whether it will, the answer is the chances of a diversion [to such airports] are next to none."

But Airbus says the lack of terminal buildings will not be a problem in an emergency. "It's really not an issue," says David Velupillai, an Airbus spokesman in Toulouse, France. "You park on a remote stand and roll a set of steps up to the aircraft."

Others are less keen on a makeshift arrangement. "The pilot is responsible for the safety of all the passengers on the plane," says Garrett. She warns that diverting planes to unsuitable airfields is fraught with difficulty. She gives an example of how in the early days of the Boeing 757, a plane was diverted to an airport that did not regularly handle the plane only to find that the airport's ramps would not fit.

The A380 ability to carry twice as many passengers will almost double the chances of a medical emergency on any given flight

But in other ways Airbus's size could actually improve medical care in the air. "We are really excited about it. It could really incorporate paramedicine, and you could have a flight attendant who was a nurse trained in altitude physiology," says Garrett. Farrol Khan of the Aviation Health Institute in Oxford, UK, insists that such changes are essential. "It is important that a doctor is on board," he says. "It should be made an essential feature of flying the A380."

However, no airline has yet announced plans for carrying medical staff on the A380. Virgin Atlantic, which begins operating the A380 in 2008, told New Scientist that it has not finalised its plans.

From issue 2500 of New Scientist magazine, 20 May 2005, page 8

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