Passengers on Southwest flight 3606 from Seattle to Dallas were somewhat surprised yesterday when an announcement came over the PA system that the plane would turn around in midair and head back to Seattle. There was no bad weather or turbulence. The plane wasn't experiencing a mechanical failure. It's just that someone had forgotten a heart on it. Yup, a living human heart. The pilot figured it was needed back in Seattle ASAP.
And so, about an hour and a half into the flight, somewhere over Idahothe plane did a 180 and went back the way it had come. It was a full flight, but the passengers were generally happy to give up a little of their time in order to possibly save someone's life. But, they wondered, how could someone just forget a human heart on an airplane? And where exactly was the heart? Besides, most organ donation programs would not risk transporting something so precious and time-sensitive as a human heart on a commercial flight, with the inherent risk of delays. How the heck did it get on the flight?
Thanks to The New York Times, we have some answers. It turns out the heart itself was not intended to be transplanted, but a company called LifeNet Health in Renton, not far from the Seattle airport, planned to use valves and tissues from the heart in future surgeries. That changes the timeline somewhat. If a whole heart is being transplanted into a new body it needs to get there within four to six hours of being removed from the old one. But the valves and tissues LifeNet planned to use could travel up to 48 hours and still be usable.
A courier company had sent the heart from Sacramento to Seattle using Southwest's cargo service. But for reasons that still aren't clear, the ground crew failed to unload it before the plane continued to Dallas. LifeNet expressed its gratitude to Southwest for turning around and bringing the heart back where it belonged.
As for the Dallas-bound passengers on flight 3606, their plane was taken out of service due to an unrelated mechanical issue. They finally got to t to Dallas five hours later than they were supposed to. A Southwest spokesperson told the Times that the airline sincerely regretted inconveniencing those passengers and that it would be reaching out to them with "a gesture of good will to apologize for the disruption to their travel." Presumably, that means they'll wind up with some free travel vouchers. And a heckuva good story to tell.