The story of a Continental pilot who passed away mid-flight surely touched a nerve in all of us, whether our thoughts were with the pilot's family or his crew or both. But the story also revealed an aspect of airline safety that many people don't know much about: If something happens to the pilot during a flight, are the passengers safe?
The simple answer is: Absolutely. While early reporting of the story was mostly reserved in tone (i.e. there was no palpable sense of panic) I did see a lot of stories use terms such as "emergency landing" and a number of readers commenting that they hoped the plane landed safely. But the passengers of this flight were never in any danger.
As I usually do when I have behind-the-scenes questions about airline operation, I turned to airline pilot Patrick Smith, whose column, Ask the Pilot, appears weekly on Salon.com. Here's what he had to say:
"This was a highly unfortunate event, obviously, for the captain and his family. From a safety standpoint, however, it was really a non-issue. Remember that all commercial flights carry at least two fully qualified pilots, captain and first officer, who are able to operate the aircraft in all regimes of flight, in good weather or bad. A transoceanic flight, such as Brussels, Belgium, to Newark, N.J., on which crew members take scheduled rest breaks, would have been carrying a minimum of three pilots ..."
So even though the plane had lost its captain, there were still two equally capable pilots aboard. Smith also explains the difference between a captain and first officer, writing, "The first officer is known colloquially as the copilot, but he or she is not an apprentice or a helping hand. First officers perform just as many takeoffs and landings as captains do ... The captain, of course, always has command authority—and a somewhat bigger paycheck. (Moving from first officer to captain is strictly a function of seniority.)"
Smith also points out that the captain passed away during the safest part of the flight—cruising—but that crewmembers are trained to handle pilot incapacitation during critical and more dangerous phases of the flight such as takeoff and landing as well.
Long story short, airline crew are well-prepared to deal with these kinds of scenarios. It's a tragedy to be sure, but not a danger to passengers.