How Human Organs Are Flown For Transplants

When you’re flying along in seat 11C, midway through your flight, rarely do you think about what’s in the cargo hold below. In addition to luggage, mail, and pallets of freight, human organs are sometimes on the manifest. If a human organ needs to cover a significant distance in the quickest possible time, regular commercial flights are often the best way to do this.

Academics have looked at how airlines can better plan networks to aid the speedy transit of human organs. Photo: Miami Dade International Airport

As airlines cut capacity and trim routes, it’s not just potential passengers inconvenienced. It presents a real challenge for medicos looking to move human organs to another hospital, often thousands of kilometers distant. But a group of academics are trying to put a positive spin on things. They argue now is the time to rethink how to transport human organs by air efficiently.

Stay informed: Sign up for our daily aviation news digest.

Better airline connectivity means more organs are available for transplant

We’ve all seen the images of organs on ice in an esky being loaded onto a plane for a dash across the country. It’s very literally life and death. A paper called Does Transportation Mean Transplantation? Impact of New Airline Routes on Sharing of Cadaveric Kidneys by US-based academics Guihua Wang, Ronghuo Zheng, and Tinglong Dai looks at how well (or not well) kidneys are transported across the United States by air.

“Although numerous policy initiatives aimed at broadening organ pooling exist in the United States, they rarely account for a key friction—efficient airline transportation, ideally direct flights,” they say.

Organs like kidneys need to get from operating table to operating table as quickly as possible. Photo:

The trio argue direct flights are necessary for long-distance sharing due to the time-sensitive nature of kidney transplantation.

The academics note that around 5,000 people die every year in the United States while waiting for a kidney transplant. They also say 18% of kidneys available for transplant go to waste. They argue better connectivity and the introduction of new airline routes makes a significant difference to the number of kidneys available for transplant. Better connectivity reduces travel time and that’s important in time-sensitive cargo such as this.

Stay informed: Sign up for our daily aviation news digest.

US airlines happy to fly human organs on an all care but no responsibility basis

Not all human organs can go onto commercial flights. For instance, human hearts can survive only four to six hours out of the body, so they get private transfers. But organs like kidneys and pancreases will last longer and often find themselves flying commercial.

All the major airlines in the United States will carry human organs. They offer specialized but little-discussed services that will see the time-sensitive cargo safely boarded, handled, and monitored. Mostly, the sealed eskies will come off a flight faster than your most impatient passenger. But for the airlines, it’s all care and no responsibility. Scroll through the web, and you’ll find some curdling stories of organs left behind and misplaced.

All the US airlines will carry human organs bound destined for transplant. Photo: Miami Dade International Airport

While focusing on kidneys, Guihua Wang, Ronghuo Zheng, and Tinglong Dai say merging US airline transportation and kidney transplantation datasets allowed them to match the evolution of airline routes connecting all the US airports and kidney transplants between donors and recipients connected by these airports. They estimated the introduction of a new airline route increases the number of shared kidneys by 7.3%.

The upshot? Like the easy transfer of people, human organs benefit from convenient flight options, ideally direct flights. With the airline industry operating record low schedules, there’s now an opportunity to plan future schedules to facilitate the speedy and easy transfer of human organs. While connections and delays might delay and annoy people, human organs destined for transplants really do need to make their destination as soon as possible