Southwest Plane Turns Back After Human Heart Left Onboard by Mistake

December 13, 2018 Updated: December 13, 2018

A human heart was accidentally left on a Southwest passenger airplane in Seattle, forcing the pilot to make a U-turn back for the airport.

The plane had earlier flown from Sacramento to Seattle, according to the Seattle Times, where the heart was supposed to be unloaded for delivery to a local hospital on Dec. 9.

But it wasn’t unloaded, staying aboard the plane that now became an evening flight to Dallas.

The plane got over 500 miles before the pilot turned back for the airport with the express purpose of returning the heart, with other passengers in tow, so that it could reach the hospital in time.

“During Flight 3606 with scheduled service from Seattle to Dallas this past Sunday evening, we learned of a life-critical cargo shipment onboard the aircraft that was intended to stay in Seattle for delivery to a local hospital,” said a representative for Southwest via email. “Therefore, we made the decision to return to Seattle to ensure the shipment was delivered to its destination within the window of time allotted by our cargo customer.”

Around 500 miles into its 1,600-mile journey to Dallas, in southeast Idaho, the pilot informed the passengers why they were turning around.

One passenger, Dr. Andrew Gottschalk, told the Seattle Times that passengers were initially shocked that a human heart was being transported on a commercial carrier.

But after the shock, came a sense of kindness, he said, as everyone “was happy to save a life.”

Destination Unknown

Once the heart had been unloaded, however, the passengers’ ordeal wasn’t over. Their plane was taken out of service due to an unrelated “mechanical issue,” and they had to wait five hours for a replacement plane before they finally took off again.

Organ box
A driver carries an empty styrofoam box used for transporting human organs to his van in Berlin, Germany, on Sept. 28, 2012. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

“We sincerely regret the inconvenience to the customers impacted by the delay, and we are following up with them with a gesture of goodwill to apologize for the disruption to their travel,” Southwest Airlines said, in part, in a statement. “Nothing is more important to us than the safety of our customers and the safe delivery of the precious cargo we transport every day.”

According to the Seattle Times, the heart was not bound for any of the Seattle-area hospitals.

Southwest did not reveal the intended destination of the heart, or what it was being used for, thus impossible to tell if anyone’s life was ever in danger.

According to the Seattle Times, organizations that assist with transplant organ transfers said they would never use a commercial flight for a heart.

LifeCenter Northwest organizes the transfer of transplant organs in the region. Spokeswoman Katherine Pliska told the Times, “We only use private flights. There’s a time limit to get where it needs to go.”

There are approximately 3,000 heart transplants annually in the United States.

Hearts are only viable for transplant for a few hours out of the body, cooled and stored in ice. The United Kingdom clinical guidelines recommend a maximum of 6 hours. 

However, the Organ Care System (OCS), dubbed the ‘Heart in a box’ is a mechanically assisted solution that allows the heart to continue beating at a near-normal temperature.

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