Debbie Owen thought her British Airways flight from the Ivory Coast to London Gatwick would be smooth—a seven-hour journey to the comforting pre-holiday atmosphere of Britain from the African heat. She was seven months pregnant, traveling alone with her four-year-old daughter, Claire.
Her husband Duncan would join later, closer to the birth. However, shortly after takeoff, contractions began, surprising her. Her due date was seven weeks away in late December, confirmed by her recent doctor’s visit and a letter clearing her for travel.
Nonetheless, it was evident her second child had different plans, opting for an early arrival.
Initially, Debbie tried to endure the contractions, hoping to make it to Europe and reach a hospital. Yet, it became apparent her baby would arrive before they touched down. The flight was near the U.K. coast when the birth took place.
The crew cared for Claire, and a Dutch doctor named Wym Bakker, on his way back from providing maternity care in Ghana, took charge of the birth. Duncan received the news from the pilot himself, as Shona, now 28, came into the world with the sky as her witness.
Shona is part of a group of around 50 individuals worldwide known as ‘skyborne’—unexpected arrivals who unexpectedly join the flight’s passenger list. During a digital journalism project as a student, Shona founded a website and community for Skyborne and delved into the history of such births. Over the years, a few similar stories have made headlines.
Matthew Dulles de Bara’s mother gave birth mid-flight between New York and Orlando, not long after Shona’s journey. Another added passenger emerged during a flight from Taipei to Los Angeles in 2015. Virgin Atlantic experienced its first mid-flight birth at 36,000 feet in 2004.
The baby was named Virginia, and in her honor, Branson’s company named a plane. Eight years later, on a flight to Johannesburg, another Virgin baby made a mid-air entrance—this time, a boy.”
Shona found a story that particularly fascinated her—the tale of the first recorded baby born mid-flight, dating back to 1929. In a hidden snippet from a Florida newspaper, she uncovered the account of an aviation enthusiast father and a heavily pregnant doctor’s wife.
When she felt the time was near, they boarded a plane and circled at 2,000 feet until the birth. The baby girl was aptly named Airleen.
In her research, Shona also discovered a story about twin births—one in flight and the other after landing. Regrettably, there have been a few cases where babies were born in airplane bathrooms and abandoned by their mothers.
Despite the potential risks of labor during a flight, Shona’s investigation revealed that there have been no fatalities or stillbirths on board. Interestingly, there is no official data on this unique occurrence held by airlines, medical associations, or industry bodies like the International Air Transport Association.
This is a striking statistic, considering the rarity of the event. Births like these occur in about one in every 26 million passengers, according to MedAire, an aviation medical support firm. Dr. Paulo Alves, the company’s global medical director, emphasizes that in-flight childbirth is exceedingly rare, and these cases were unexpected, involving premature births.
Giving birth on a plane presents challenges due to the thinner air, making it harder for the baby to breathe, akin to a premature birth at high altitudes like Mexico City. Moreover, the absence of prenatal experts with advanced equipment to handle distress during birth or emergencies like C-sections adds to the complexity.
Additionally, newborns’ Eustachian tubes struggle with air pressure changes, further emphasizing the suboptimal conditions for childbirth mid-flight.
The risks extend beyond premature birth, a reality Laura Einstetler, a pilot for a major U.S. airline who shares her experiences through her blog as Captain Laura, knows well. She recounts an incident on a flight from Los Angeles to Hawaii, where a passenger nearly seven months pregnant started hyperventilating due to a preexisting medical condition she couldn’t medicate during pregnancy.
With no airport nearby and two-and-a-half hours of flight remaining, the situation was tense. Fortunately, they managed to stabilize her, albeit with considerable anxiety.
Protocols for handling in-flight births lack standardization. In cases like Debbie Owen’s, passengers might be relocated to more comfortable seating, such as in business or first class, or a designated area in the galley. Emergency landings are usually not an option due to the time and inconvenience involved, taking at least 45 minutes to descend from a high altitude.
This would disrupt the aircraft schedule and prove costly for the airline, inconveniencing other passengers. Thus, flight attendants step in as makeshift midwives while the plane continues to its original destination.
The regulations in aviation concerning pregnant travelers are vague. There isn’t a universal rule; different airlines adopt varying approaches.
Some airlines decline to carry women after 27 weeks of pregnancy, while others allow travel up to the 40th week with appropriate medical documentation. Delta, for example, follows this latter approach.
A Delta spokesperson highlights the recommendation that pregnant women avoid flying within four weeks of their due date and consult with their doctor before flying, although it remains a suggestion rather than a firm rule.
When it comes to the citizenship of a child born at 36,000 feet, MedAire’s Alves mentions the variability. He explains that although there is no universal rule, an aircraft is technically considered the soil of the country to which it belongs, as established by the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness. However, this technicality often doesn’t affect the child’s citizenship, as they usually inherit their parents’ citizenship through jus sanguinis or right of blood.
This is the prevailing policy, although some countries adhere to jus soli, or right of soil, where citizenship is based on the place of birth. The 1961 Convention’s rules come into play only in rare cases when the child would otherwise be stateless. In such situations, the airline’s country of origin determines the passport.
According to the U.S. State Department, if a child is born in international waters, their place of birth should be listed as “at sea”. If born in flight in an unclaimed region, they would officially be classified as born “in the air”.
Shona Owen holds a U.K. passport, yet her place of birth has led to confusion during renewal attempts. Initially noted as “Holder born on an airplane 10 miles south of Mayfield, Sussex,” on a special page for official observations, the British passport format change following EU directives led to the elimination of this page. Consequently, she had to list her place of birth in a different format, with “born at sea” being the closest official category available.
Setting passport matters aside, a successful in-flight birth is a joyful occasion for both the parents and the airline.
Airlines often capitalize on this by turning it into a PR success—such as Virgin granting one baby free flight until the age of 21 and British Airways gifting Shona Owen a pair of tickets to any destination for her 18th birthday (she chose to visit her grandmother in Australia).
While free flights for life remain more of a hopeful idea than a reality, Owen ensures to share her unique story at check-in, often resulting in a complimentary upgrade.
Despite her unexpected early arrival, Owen faced no complications that affected her growth. Standing at 6’1”, she humorously remarks that her in-flight birth didn’t stunt her growth.
Interestingly, this unusual start in life seemed to foreshadow her career choice. Owen decided to pursue a career in travel, currently working for Yellow Zebra Safaris’ U.K. office.”
FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions)
Q1: How rare are in-flight births?
A: In-flight births are exceedingly rare, occurring in approximately one in every 26 million passengers, according to aviation medical support firm MedAire.
Q2: What are the risks associated with giving birth on an airplane?
A: Giving birth on a plane presents challenges due to the thinner air, making it harder for the baby to breathe, akin to premature birth at high altitudes. Furthermore, the absence of prenatal experts and advanced equipment can complicate deliveries.
Q3: How do airlines handle in-flight births?
A: Protocols for handling in-flight births lack standardization. Passengers may be relocated to more comfortable seating, or a designated area, while flight attendants often step in as makeshift midwives. Emergency landings are usually not a preferred option.
Q4: What is the citizenship status of a child born on an airplane?
A: The citizenship of a child born on an airplane can be variable. While an aircraft is technically considered the soil of the country to which it belongs, most children inherit their parents’ citizenship through jus sanguinis (right of blood) rather than jus soli (right of soil).
The 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness rules often come into play in rare cases when the child would otherwise be stateless.
In-flight births are incredibly rare occurrences, with risks associated with delivering a baby on an airplane due to the unique conditions and limited medical resources available.
Airlines handle such situations with varying protocols, and the citizenship status of a child born in a flight can depend on various factors.
While these events may pose challenges, they often become unique stories and joyful moments for parents and airlines, with some offering special gestures and recognition for these unexpected arrivals.