Medication in carryon baggage

If a passenger brings their bag on board the plane but there isn’t enough room in an overhead bin, is there anything flight attendants should do before taking the bag from the passenger and having it put in the belly of the plane?

Valuables, as well as medication in carryon baggage is where passengers are expected to keep what’s most important to them. When flights are full, or when the passenger brings with them too many carryon bags, one or more bags may end up being taken from the passenger and placed in the jetway for airplane belly loading. This is common for airlines around the world. As part of initial and recurrent training, various employee groups receive required training that interfaces with passenger baggage handling, their carryon baggage program and dangerous goods training program, regardless of whether they are a will-carry or will-NOT carry operation.

Flight attendants, ground staff, cargo handlers, and maintenance all receive dangerous goods training. Flight attendants and customer service agents are trained on carryon baggage requirements and limitations. Everyone knows about the importance of ensuring dangerous goods do not end up in the belly of the plane that is not properly packaged or documented. In particular, one of the hot topics that will be ongoing for a very long time has to do with lithium batteries and the risk they bring. For this reason, flight attendants ask (better be asking) passengers if they have any electronic devices, power banks, or spare batteries inside the bag before they handed to a customer service agent to have it delivered to the belly of the plane. They all understand the dangers a fire in the belly of the plane can become, and it’s their lives on the line if they don’t ask the appropriate questions.

The subject of dangerous goods is always addressed during training, but is there anything else that Inflight Training needs to be teaching their flight attendants regarding passengers and the carryon baggage program? Yes, there is an additional question, and asking it can prevent an unnecessary emergency from occurring during flight. It has to do with passenger medication in carryon baggage. No airline wants to have a crewmember-created or involved inflight medical emergency that was fully preventable. The passenger may end up in medical distress, and it’s possible the flight crew may need to divert to get the passenger professional emergency medical assistance. While inflight medical services such as MedAire, InflightMed, and others.  Not just during flight, but appropriate actions taken by the flight attendants can also prevent the person from having medical issues after they reach their destination.

Just because a passenger’s bag is placed in the jetway to be belly loaded doesn’t mean it’s guaranteed to be put in the belly on that flight. The majority of the time the bag travels on that plane with the passenger, but on occasion, the passenger travels to their destination yet the bag goes somewhere else. It has happened to me before, I have unfortunate first-hand experience in reaching my destination, only to find out my bag went to Chicago and was finally in my possession two days later.

How can flight attendants take care of this problem? Its’ quite easy, and all issues can be addressed within one question.

Flight attendants should must, ask the passenger, “do you have any medication, valuables, electronics, spare batteries, or power banks in the bag? If yes, please take them out and keep them with you in the cabin. You will not be able to access your bag during flight, so please take out what you must have during the flight.”

It may seem like an inconvenience to or for the crewmember to have to ask any passenger to take their important items out as they may end up slowing down or blocking the other passengers from boarding or delaying the flight. It’s possible the flight attendant is not aware of the need to ask this question, and in some instances, it may have not been discussed or emphasized during training. Regardless of the reason for crewmembers not asking passengers every time about the contents of their carryon baggage, flight attendants must ask passengers to take out whatever is important to them and all medication from the bag prior to checking it into the belly of the plane.

So, are the concerns about preventing a medical emergency real or just being exaggerated? Sadly, this is not an over-exaggeration. One person dying because they don’t have their medication with them in the cabin when their bag was placed into the belly is one person too many to unnecessarily die. This sad story is exactly why gate agents and flight attendants must always ask passengers if they have any medication in their bag BEFORE they take it away and check it into the belly. One woman died because her medication in the carryon baggage was taken and put in the belly of the plane. While passengers and crew may be eager to get the flight started and everyone in their seats, it’s critical for the safety of the passenger’s health to ask them to keep in the cabin their potentially life-saving medicine. This is not to blame the flight attendants for the passenger’s death.

Each passenger is responsible for themselves and knowing it’s in their best interest to keep their medication with them in the cabin where it can be reached during flight, especially if it’s potentially life-saving medication. Flight attendants are the back-up reminder to the passenger that they might have something in their bag that they won’t be able to access during the flight. However, when something as simple as a brief question can prevent emergencies, there’s hardly any valid justification for not training flight attendants to take a moment to ask passengers about medication, electronic devices, valuables, and dangerous goods potentially in their bag.

Regarding the importance of asking passengers questions prior to taking their bag from them, dangerous goods pose a threat to everyone on board a plane. It is in the interest of everyone’s life to ensure this procedure occurs every time a bag is taken away. This event happened over in China on a Chinese airline during passenger boarding.  By the inherent design of lithium batteries, once a fire starts, the lithium battery will most likely experience thermal runaway, causing each individual cell to ignite, one after the other. Once the fire starts, although there are fire suppression systems in the belly of commercial aircraft, it may not be adequate to put out a lithium battery fire. Such a fire puts the lives of everyone onboard the airplane at risk. All it takes is one question by the tending flight attendant to prevent this from occurring. Imagine if that bag had been placed into the belly of the plane and ignited during flight. The end result could have been catastrophic, with everyone on board losing their life. Here is the FAA-provided, Office of Hazmat and Security table on Hazardous Materials Carried by Airline Passengers and Crewmembers. Additionally, IATA provides commonly used Table 2.3A for Provisions for Dangerous Goods Carried by Passengers or Crew that is used by IATA member airlines and those that adopt the IATA standards. Here you will find the IATA Dangerous Goods Corner which contains Table 2.3A in different languages, as well as frequently asked questions by passengers regarding the transportation of dangerous goods. Mind you, many, if not most passengers do not intentionally violate dangerous goods regulations; it’s lack of awareness or knowledge that causes incidents to occur.

Lithium battery fires are not only dangerous in the cabin, if the fire starts in the cargo area, but it can also be catastrophic. UPS Air Cargo flight 6 crashed into a military base 10 miles from Dubai Airport on September 3, 2010. Investigators seeking answers zero in on the plane’s cargo: highly flammable lithium batteries. This is a preview of the full video. This alone should be enough for all crewmembers to be aware of the absolute necessity of asking passengers to take electronic devices, spare lithium batteries, and power banks out of their baggage about to be placed in the cargo hold of the plane. Here is an article that includes a transcript from the cockpit voice recorder of what the pilots were dealing with. There’s also a Wikipedia summary of UPS Flight 6 with additional citations for reference. Thankfully, since then there have been significant changes to dangerous goods regulations regarding screening and transportation of lithium batteries on passenger and cargo aircraft. That alone does not relieve the airline and the crewmembers from being vigilant in the prevention of permissible dangerous goods in the cabin from being placed in the belly of the plane, which is prohibited.

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