David Learmount/LONDON

American Airlines plans to install diagnostic medical equipment on all its aircraft after finding that costly diversions can be reduced by determining whether apparent heart attack symptoms are real.

The equipment, know as an automatic external defibrillator (AED), can also treat actual cardiac problems by supplying electric shock treatment to the heart. American plans to install the equipment across its entire 649-strong fleet by the first quarter of 1999.

Even using the AED on only 247 of its aircraft so far, the US carrier says it has been employed as a monitor 55 times in six months, and at least nine unnecessary diversions have been avoided. At an average $20,000 cost per medical diversion, American calculates the equipment has saved it $180,000 in six months. Use across the fleet could save at least $2 million a year.

American had about two medical diversions a week during 1996 and its medical specialist, Dr David McKenas, says that about one-third of these are cardiac-related.

The AED equipment's advantage over conventional defibrillators - which are carried increasingly frequently by US airlines - is that it can detect and indicate heart electrical activity, preventing incorrect diagnosis of a heart attack, says McKenas. If shock treatment is needed, the AED, developed by Seattle-based Heartstream, has an integral computer which controls appropriate shock delivery, so that non-experts such as an airline's cabin crew can use the machine.

The UK's Virgin Atlantic Airways is about to install equipment that allows the cabin crew to "wire up" patients with a three-lead electrocardiogram and sensors for other crucial medical information for real-time medical diagnosis by doctors via satellite datalink.

The medical diagnoses will be made by doctors at MedAir of Phoenix, USA. Virgin says that the revolutionary new system, undergoing final tests, is expected to be operational by about September.

British Airways is also about to begin employing MedAir, but with a voice satellite link that can be used by the crew or an onboard doctor to describe symptoms and then receive advice.

Source: Flight International