The management of United Airlines has confirmed the death of a Nigerian, Mr. Benedict Sylvester Igwedike, 67, while aboard Flight 143 to Houston, United States of America.
The incident, which occurred on Monday night, took place after the aircraft had just finished refuelling at Dakar, the Senegalese capital. The plane had taken off from the Murtala Mohammed International Airport (MMIA), Lagos.
But the bad news may have been delayed from reaching the family of the deceased as the airline said it had just contacted his family Wednesday.
A statement from the airline's headquarters in Houston yesterday said: "Medical personnel in Houston met United flight 143 from Lagos, Nigeria upon arrival Monday due to a deceased passenger on board. We are assisting the passenger's family with their needs."
On landing at the George Bush Intercontinental Airport early on Tuesday morning, the body was taken for autopsy. United Airlines office in Lagos was mum over the incident but a terse statement from the headquarters had confirmed the death.
Reports from the US said Houston Police Department (HPD) confirmed that Igwedike died en route to Houston from Lagos and that the deceased was found dead in the plane, so the body was taken out of the aircraft for autopsy.
The report quoted HPD Homicide Division Senior Police Officer M. Miller who said Igwedike died in the air after the flight left Lagos and after refuelling in Dakar, Senegal as the flight headed for Houston.
Houston police said they were waiting for autopsy report to determine the exact cause of death. There were speculations that the deceased might have been travelling for medical attention in the United States but there was no report that he was accompanied by anyone, as the airline was yet to identify any passenger that travelled with the deceased.
An operator told THISDAY that when death occurs on board a flight, it is the responsibility of the airline to work with the airport authority to deposit the corpse for autopsy, ascertain the cause of death, and contact the next of kin.
"The autopsy report will disclose what caused his death. But if it is the food served by the airline that killed him, the airline would be held liable. If this is proven, the airline would be held responsible and would compensate the next of kin," he said. It was not yet established why and how Igwedike died on board the flight but similar deaths while an aircraft is in flight have occurred in the past.