I've been pretty fortunate in my flying career- I've only had to deal with a handful of really serious situations, thankfully none of which were a woman giving birth. However, I have met crew who have had this happen on their flights, and it isn't as rare as you'd think. In fact, a crewmember I know from a previous airline tells me that currently Emirates Airline has the highest rate of in-flight births of any major airline, averaging around 10 per year!
Last year, a Southwest Airlines crew in the US had a woman deliver a baby on board after going into labour halfway between Chicago & Boise, Idaho. The baby was born before a diversion and landing could be made.
Flight attendants from that flight said they asked for aid from a doctor and nurse travelling onboard, and used galley space as a makeshift 'delivery room'. Equipment and training for a birth on board varies between airlines. On a small regional airline, the best you might get is a flight attendant trained in first aid and a quick stop to the nearest airfield for a landing. On bigger international airlines flying long routes, the equipment available can be as sophisticated as that found in emergency rooms, with items such as forceps, anasthetic and other hospital-grade gear. Some crew are trained in their use, but usually a doctor or nurse would be asked to assist if there is one on board.
Airlines flying far over water usually are equipped with a satellite-enabled telephone link to medical centres where doctors and surgeons are on standby around the clock to provide advice for any type of medical emergency that might happen in-flight, including a birth. If there is no doctor physically present on the aircraft, these link-ups enable the medical professionals to guide the crew in how to use the equipment and what to do in a specific situation.
Some babies born in-flight have been granted free travel for life, among other perks. In 1995, a baby born unexpectedly on a Thai Airways flight was given an educational scholarship, as well as special flying privileges with the company, and is considered a "daughter of Thai Airways". One new mother even named her baby 'Asia' after he was born on an Air Asia flight.
(The airline later granted the mother & child free flights for life.)
This gifting of free travel to babies (and often the new mother too) has given rise to the urban myth that airlines do not want to give out so much free travel, and thus restrict the travel of mothers-to-be. This is far from the truth, the actual reason basically being one of the safety & wellbeing of both the mother and the child. Given the risks associated with a birth in-flight, airlines want to minimise the risk to expectant mothers and thus each have their own guidelines.
Some airlines have no restrictions at all, while others require clearance by a doctor after a certain stage of pregnancy. My advice to globe-trotting mums-to-be? Check with your airline (or airlines if using more than one carrier) well before your travel date. Ensure you have any required doctor's certificates or letters, and double check that you have clearance with the airline's own doctors if required. ALWAYS have travel insurance, because having a baby in a foreign country can be expensive, not to mention diverting a whole planeload of people. And always be sure that your specific policy covers birth-related issues.
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