Free flights, citizenship: What happens when a baby is born on a flight

Each airline has different cutoffs for safe flying of pregnant women, with some allowing air travel up to 36 weeks

by

Nasreen Abdulla

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File photo
File photo

Published: Sat 28 Jan 2023, 6:00 AM

Last updated: Sat 28 Jan 2023, 7:38 PM

The birth of a child is always a joyous occasion. However, what happens if the baby is born 35,000 feet above the ground in an airplane? From the medical requirements to the legal implications including citizenship. And the myth is that babies born on a plane get free flights for life. However, is that true?

Do babies born mid-air get free flights for life? According to an aviation expert, it has happened. “On September 15, 2020, a pregnant woman suddenly went into labour pain on a flight from Cairo to London,” said Hans-Georg Rabacher, aviation expert, pilot and author of the book Flying Answers From Inside the Cockpit. “The baby [was] given free flights for life after her mother gave birth while still airborne with EgyptAir. The crew decided to initiate an unscheduled landing in Munich, Germany, which the airline turned into this clever marketing move. However, no airline is obliged to provide free flights for life.”


Hans-Georg Rabacher.
Hans-Georg Rabacher.

Although local airlines declined to comment, unofficial sources claim none of the UAE-based carriers give free flights to babies born on the plane. Last week, in an unexpected occurrence, a woman went into labour on flight EK319 that was flying from Tokyo’s Narita International airport to Dubai. The 12-hour flight continued uninterrupted to Dubai where the mother and child were met with medical professionals upon landing.

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According to doctors, it is safe for women to fly up to the 8th month of pregnancy. “Generally, a pregnant woman with a single foetus and no other complications can safely fly up to 32 weeks, provided the airline has no objections or policy restrictions,” said Dr Jessica Celina Fernandes, specialist obstetrics and gynaecology, Aster Hospital, Sharjah. “Each airline has different cutoffs for safe flying, with some allowing air travel up to 36 weeks with clearance from health care professionals.”

Dr Jessica Celina Fernandes
Dr Jessica Celina Fernandes

Trained staff

As there are no industry standards on whether or not airlines include in-flight childbirth in their training portfolios, Hans-Georg said it is up to the airline whether they want to train their staff for childbirth.

“Each airline can take appropriate measures to implement these guidelines,” he said. “In many cases, however, those flight attendants who work on long-haul flights are trained for such a rare event. The reason is obvious. When flying over oceans, for example, a spontaneous landing due to a medical reason is not possible compared to a short-haul flight over land.”

Emirates airlines in a statement to Khaleej Times said that all its cabin crew are trained to handle childbirth as well as several other emergencies on board.

Another question that arises is about the baby’s nationality. “There is the territorial principle — the question of where the child was born — and this is where things get difficult with births on planes,” said Hans-Georg. “In the Chicago Convention on International Civil Aviation, the contracting states expressly recognise that each state has full and exclusive air sovereignty over its territory. Thus, any aircraft is subject to the law of the state in whose airspace it is currently operating. This includes the birthplace principle, which can result in a second passport when the birth happens in airspace of a foreign territory.”

Travelling while pregnant

Different airlines have different rules for travelling while pregnant. Here in the UAE, most airlines follow similar rules.

Air Arabia will accept pregnant women for travel up to the end of their 35th week for single pregnancies and 32nd week for multiple pregnancies provided that they present a medical certificate stating the number of weeks of the pregnancy and confirming she is fit to fly.

Similar rules are followed by Etihad Airways and Emirates who both require a medical certificate starting from the 29th week of pregnancy. Emirates specified that the letter must include confirmation of a singleton or multiple pregnancy, specify the estimated date of delivery, confirm that there are no complications and that there is no known reason that would prevent the passenger from flying.

According to Dr Jessica, the factors taken into consideration when issuing a medical certificate are whether it is a single pregnancy, existing high-risk factors like placenta previa or hypertension and the duration of the flight. “More than 4 hours of flying time can carry a small risk of blood clots,” she said. “So pregnant women are advised to keep hydrated and move about every 30 to 45 minutes. They can even consider wearing compression stockings.”


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