KitKat-gate: how airlines recognise medical help

The man who pays his way

Is there a doctor on the plane? When the call goes out, health professionals respond – not for any reward, but from a sense of duty. Dr Edward Southall, a retired GP from Devon, was on an easyJet flight from Gatwick to Greece. He says he heard the crew discussing a possible medical diversion because of a poorly passenger. So, he volunteered to treat an elderly Greek lady who was having breathing difficulties, and stayed with her for an hour.

Later, when the cabin crew wheeled the inflight sales trolley to Dr Edward Southall's row, you might imagine they would not ask “Anything from the trolley?” but instead offer “Anything from the trolley – you've helped us out, now choose your reward”. Instead, when Dr Southall asked for a coffee and a KitKat, the hot drink was free but the snack cost him £1.20.

After the flight, Dr Southall tried to engage with easyJet about the airline's attitude to medical assistance. Its website invites people who want to talk about policy issues to “contact our public affairs team at publicaffairs@easyJet.com.”

He wrote: “Medical personnel are being increasingly asked for their help on flights and I believe your airline should have a policy to recognise the value that their assistance provides. I would be very interested to hear your views.”

The public affairs team didn't answer. So, Dr Southall sent the same message to customer services. The response: “In relation to your complain I would like to inform you that as an appreciation we are offering you 1 hold luggage of 20 kgs absolutely free of cost on your next flight with easyjet. I do understand on the day of your flight it is very less that the staff could do for you.”

Deciphered, that's an offer to check in a bag free of charge on a one-way flight. 

He tried again, asking the customer-service team to escalate the matter. Once again he received an incoherent response. First the offer was repeated: “All we can offer you is one free Hold bag for your next flight you book with us, and as it was informed to you earlier.” Then he was told there was no point escalating the issue: “Even if you speak to our manager they will also advise you the same.”

In the complex and challenging world of air travel, with potential problems ranging from air-traffic control snarl-ups to air rage, not everything is handled perfectly. 

Sensible travellers, including Dr Southall, accept that. But he gave easyJet three chances to address his concerns –and ended up with what looks to me like the customer-service version of giving a passenger the finger. Of KitKat. 

Free flights for free care

Dr Southall then contacted me, saying: “I am dismayed by easyJet's lack of concern for the seriousness of this problem. They appear to have no policy that acknowledges the value of volunteer medical personnel who are travelling on their flights. I was also very disappointed that easyJet management did not contact me on my return home.”

The number of in-flight medical emergencies is rising because there are more passengers in the air than ever, and the countries in which people have the highest propensity to fly also have ageing populations – increasing the risk of heart and breathing problems that may be triggered by the stress of the airport experience, the low cabin air pressure at altitude and, I dare say in some cases, excessive drinking.

Health professionals who volunteer to help out during in-flight medical emergencies do so from a sense of professional duty, not because they want anything in return. But some airlines have impressive reward policies in place. BA says, depending on the circumstances of the event, it may provide complimentary flights. 

Southwest, the world's biggest and most successful budget airline, says: “We typically provide a note of thanks for the assistance that the medical professional provided along with a voucher that can be applied toward a future fare purchase.”

Lufthansa encourages doctors to sign up in advance for its frequent-flyer programme. After their medical credentials are checked, volunteers are offered a €50 flight voucher simply for registering. It's a smart move, because the presence of a doctor on a flight is then flagged up on the passenger manifest – and cabin crew even know where he or she is sitting.

The right thing to do

Dr Southall has now been offered a free flight by easyJet, which says: “We are sorry we didn't get this right on this occasion.” But the airline also says of the flight: “On this occasion, a diversion was unlikely.” The doctor expressed incredulity when I relayed this statement: “The seriousness of the emergency was never in doubt. Without my intervention, the plane was diverting.”

I wasn't there, so I don't know who's right. I do know, though, that I would welcome the presence of Dr Southall on board my next flight.

An elderly lady was cared for. Hundreds of passengers enjoyed journeys without delay and disruption. The possibility, however remote, that easyJet would get a large bill for a diversion, was avoided. And the airline even profited from the handsome mark-up on that £1.20 KitKat.

 

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