The airline is ordering 300 of the portable devices, which will be introduced in March 1997. It is training 2,300 flight attendants to use them.
The American Airlines move comes a month after the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) approved the use of defibrillators on domestic flights in the US. It is thought that the airline is attempting to head off possible lawsuits by passengers who received inadequate treatment during medical emergencies.
"The safety of passengers is our paramount concern," said Lizann Peppard, a spokesperson for American Airlines. "But if it saves us money by avoiding costly litigation, that's a bonus."
The battery-powered defibrillators sense abnormal heart rhythms and deliver controlled electric shocks to stop the heart so it can restart with a normal rhythm. They are the latest and most sophisticated piece of kit to be included in the in-flight medical kit, which began life as a box containing bandages, smelling salts, iodine, and morphine (to calm hysterical passengers).
Until recently, the kit remained largely unchanged. Then some long-haul airlines introduced drugs to relieve stomach ulcers, asthma attacks and diabetic conditions. The British Airways medical kit now carries 88 items, including powerful prescription drugs that can only be administered by a doctor. United Airlines has a device that communicates a patient's vital signs to doctors on the ground via modem and satellite telephone.
Medical opinion remains divided on how useful defibrillators would be at 35,000 feet. Cor- respondence in the Lancet has indicated that between 500 and 1,000 people die from heart attacks on planes in a given year, but that defibrillators are only useful if the victim can be put into intensive care immediately.
A spokesperson for British Airways said it did not plan to introduce defibrillators, but that "the situation was under review". There were 2,629 medical incidents among the 36 million people who flew on BA last year, of which 61 were heart-related.
Virgin Atlantic claims it was the first airline to introduce defibrillators when it put them on its transatlantic jumbos in 1990. Since then the machines have been used eight times.
Qantas has included defibrillators as part of its standard equipment on long-haul flights for five years, and claims to have saved six lives. In 1994 a Qantas attendant used the machine to resuscitate a woman whose heart had stopped. The incident precipitated calls from the American Heart Association for defibrillators to be included inmedical equipment, and led to the FAA's approval of the devices.