Language Barriers and In-flight Medical Emergencies

Have you ever experienced a medical emergency while on an airplane, or observed the call for doctors during a flight?


Earlier this year, Paul, a 32 year-old businessman, was on an international flight when a passenger called for assistance.

About 1 in 600 flights involves a reported passenger incident requiring medical help. That translates into 44,000 in-flight medical emergencies worldwide every year. The actual numbers may be higher since reporting is not mandatory and minor issues are very likely under-reported.

Paul was flying from a U.S. city to an overseas destination. About 30 minutes from takeoff, a man sitting across the aisle from him seemed to be in distress. Something was wrong and it looked to Paul like the man was having difficulty breathing. Flight attendants quickly arrived, made their call for medical help and frantically tried to assist.

This experience, however, was different than others. It involved a language barrier.


The confused looks and shrugged shoulders from those gathering around told the story. The passenger pointed to his chest area… Was he choking? Did he need air? Was he having a heart attack? It was impossible to know.

He wasn’t understanding or speaking English or Turkish – the native language of the flight crew. Nor was he speaking any language the others could understand. So, they began asking around to find someone who could interpret.

They brought over a Hindi speaker. To no avail.

Then Arabic. Still nothing.

Then Farsi. Nothing.


Things were getting tense as it was now 10 minutes into the ordeal. Who knew how much longer this man would remain conscious? He still seemed to have trouble breathing. The pilots were checking in to see if they needed to turn back. The crew began searching for anyone who looked non-European and was a non-English speaker.

Finally, they got lucky. It was Urdu – a seemingly obscure language to some, but serves as the official language of Pakistan and is spoken by 100 million people.

There was one person on that flight who spoke his language and it took upwards of 15 minutes to find him and resolve the situation. It turned out that the passenger took some medication for high blood pressure a few hours prior to takeoff. But, the timing wasn’t good. Just 25 minutes into the flight, the changes in cabin air pressure due to altitude caused his blood pressure to drop. The medications were still in his system, and he recognized this as breathing became difficult. This is what he was motioning about. The flight attendants quickly surmised that additional oxygen would help with his situation. They grabbed the nearest oxygen tank and administered that to him. To everyone’s relief, the situation was resolved and a life was saved.

It is not known how many of the 44,000 in-flight medical emergencies per year involve a language barrier. Finding an interpreter, in this case, was critical and fortunately the frantic search was successful. It could have been worse – unconsciousness might have set in and lack of oxygen could have had a deadly effect. The patient was alert, responsive, but not verbally able to communicate.

Paul and I met at a business function. During introductions, I told him about the 1st Minute App and he immediately shared his story with me. He suggested that the mobile solution we are developing for the language barrier would have been perfect to address the passenger’s problem.

It was designed exactly for this situation and works in these simple steps.

  • Pick language
  • Choose symptoms
  • Translate

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The App provides immediate results when time is precious and lives are on the line. We look forward to bringing this capability to first responders, including flight attendants, and to travelers who may need to immediately communicate their medical history and symptoms.

For the airline industry, we see 1st Minute App being a part of the technology adoption that makes flying safer, minimizes in-flight disruptions, and one day becomes standard issue in air-travel like first aid kits (oxygen, defibrillators). If just 10% of in-flight medical emergencies are helped with the App, that amounts to thousands of avoided disruptions for hundreds of thousands of passengers.

1st Minute is First Aid, Translated. Download the latest version of the App and be prepared for your next medical emergency.

One response to “Language Barriers and In-flight Medical Emergencies”

  1. That is quite the story, and this doesn’t really help my flight anxiety. I know that the chances I will have a problem on a flight are slim, but I know what it is like to be somewhere where there is a language barrier. It is hard to do anything and I can’t imagine trying to communicate a medical emergency in that situation, and I am glad that there is a language app i could get just in case. However, I sincerely hope that the only time I will be in an airplane when there is a medical emergency is if I am being life flighted somewhere. At least then there would be trained professionals there.