An elderly man’s in-flight medical crisis has led to a grieving family’s confrontation with Air Canada, as they claim the airline’s decision not to divert a long-haul flight contributed to his death. The incident, extensively reported by CBC News “Go Public,” has raised serious questions about the airline’s handling of in-flight emergencies.
Shanu Pande had eagerly anticipated the journey that would bring her 83-year-old father, Harish Pant, to Canada from India, celebrating his newly obtained permanent residency. However, the September flight turned tragic when Pant began exhibiting alarming symptoms, including severe chest and back pain, vomiting, and loss of bowel control.
Pande, who was traveling with her father on Flight AC051 from Delhi, described his rapid decline, saying, “He was deteriorating in front of my eyes.” Despite her appeals to the cabin crew to land the plane when his condition worsened seven hours into the flight, Air Canada continued the flight to its intended destination in Montreal, a decision that unfolded over the subsequent nine hours.
Upon arrival, paramedics rushed to assist Pant, but he passed away on the tarmac. The official cause of death, a “presumed infarction,” was determined at a Montreal hospital.
Two months following the loss, Pande’s sorrow has turned to outrage. In a statement to Go Public, she criticized the airline and its staff, “They were inhumane and callous.”
In response, Air Canada declined an on-camera interview but, through spokesperson Peter Fitzpatrick, expressed condolences. Fitzpatrick stated that the crew “properly followed the procedures” for such emergencies, though he declined to detail these procedures when prompted. He also highlighted discrepancies between the family’s account and the crew’s reports concerning the event’s timeline and actions taken.
The lack of a universal definition for in-flight emergencies, the absence of mandatory reporting for diversions, and the discretion airlines have in deciding whether to reroute a flight contribute to a murky understanding of such situations. Dr. Shahbaz Syed, an emergency physician and senior editor for the University of Ottawa’s department of emergency medicine’s blog and podcast, commented on the opaqueness of data, likening it to “flying through thick fog without radar.”
The challenges airlines face in these situations are complex, with considerations ranging from the medical to the financial. Diversions are costly, potentially reaching $900,000, according to an old Canadian Medical Association Journal article, and are reportedly rare, happening about 40 times a year for Air Canada.
Amidst the crisis, Pande’s father, who had been declared in good health months before, suffered severe symptoms indicative of a critical cardiac event. Despite this, the flight was not diverted. Air Canada’s Fitzpatrick indicated that MedAire, a third-party medical provider, assists the crew in such events, but neither Air Canada nor MedAire, citing client privacy, would provide specifics on the care plan devised.
Five medical professionals, including two family doctors, two emergency room physicians, and a retired cardiologist, Dr. Vicki Bernstein, all agreed Pant’s symptoms were of a major cardiac emergency and necessitated immediate hospitalization.
Regret and a determination for justice now fuel Pande and her family, who are pursuing a lawsuit against the airline. Pande expressed her profound regret at not insisting more forcefully for the plane to land, saying, “I should have banged on the cockpit. Why did he have to suffer like that?”