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August 16, 2023

Man suffers overdose on Southwest Airlines flight. Should the FAA require Narcan on airplanes?

Credit: ABC Action News

TAMPA, Fla. — Southwest Airlines passenger Drew Ashley was an hour into a flight and fast asleep when “out of nowhere,” he heard his father calling his name.

“Then I see him getting this young man into the aisle. He looked unresponsive, so I hopped over the two guys I was sitting next to, you know, and just went right to it,” he said.

For the next 45 minutes, Ashley, his father, and two other passengers who were nurses kept the man alive until the plane could make an emergency landing.

Josh Lazarus was on that same Baltimore to West Palm Beach flight on Friday, July 28.

“I hear a ‘bang,’ and there is a man on top of another man, and he’s performing life-saving measures at my feet,” Lazarus said. “I’m looking at the man, he’s — he’s blue.’”

Ashley and Lazarus said the man was flying with a friend who told them he struggled with an opioid addiction and “had problems with relapsing.”

“Immediately, I knew he was overdosed. I’ve been in recovery for 18 years now,” Lazarus told the I-Team. “And unfortunately, I’ve seen this happen, and people not make it.”

“The only thing I knew to do, I jumped up, and I ran from where I was at to the front of the cabin, and I asked, I said, ‘Does anybody here have Narcan?’” Lazarus said. “I think it’s safe to say 70% of the people didn’t even know what I was talking about.”

Narcan, the brand name for naloxone, can reverse an opioid overdose. Passengers weren’t the only ones without Narcan. The life-saving medication also wasn’t among the items in the plane’s emergency medical kit. And the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) doesn’t require it to be.

“Divine intervention”

What was on the flight, Ashley said, was a bag valve mask (BVM). A pocket mask attached to an oxygen bag they used to get oxygen into the 27-year-old man’s lungs.

“Every six seconds, I would count out, you know, one 1,000, two 1,000, three 1,000, etc. on the sixth, we could give a breath,” Ashley said.

The Ashleys knew what do to because this is what they do. Their company is called The Life Saviors.

“We’re a CPR, AED, first aid certification company,” Ashley said, and have contracts to teach life-saving measures to be used in an emergency.

“I don’t know what you believe in, okay, but to me, this is divine intervention. It will change the way I look at things for the rest of my life,” Lazarus said. “It’s inspiring me to campaign for Narcan. The airports need Narcan. The planes need Narcan. People need to know what it is. People need to have it.”

Ashley said he felt the same way as Lazarus.

“It had to be God’s work. The young man was sitting right next to my father. Like I said, I was the row right behind him.”

Ashley said the flight crew was “in shock” when the man overdosed.

“They weren’t prepared at all to deal with the situation. And that’s what terrifies me the most,” Lazarus said.

The flight made an emergency landing in Orlando.

“When they ripped the man out of the plane, they administered Narcan twice. Right there on the spot,” Lazarus said of the first responders.

Ashley has stayed in contact with the passenger who overdosed. And he’s okay.

“About 48 hours later, when he had called us, you know, to give thanks, and we were hearing his voice, and at that point, all of the emotion set in, like it brought tears to my and my father’s eyes,” Ashley said. “Thankfully, we were there to resuscitate him, keep him alive, so he can get the help that he needs.”

In a statement, Southwest wrote, “Out of respect for our Customers’ privacy, we do not comment on medical issues—except we can confirm that medical personnel met the flight at the gate and the Customer was transported to a local hospital. We commend those that assisted in flight.”

Yearly drug overdose deaths tops 100,000

Though it is unclear how many passengers have overdosed on a flight, the CDC reports in 2022, nearly 110,000 people died in the U.S. from a drug overdose.

That’s 300 people every day — enough people to fill every seat on two Southwest flights every day for a year.

Ashley said before they flew home, his family picked up Narcan. “Just to have it with us, ’cause again, you just never know.”

Lazarus plans to get trained through Ashley’s company. He said he plans to get CPR certified and vows he will be “carrying Narcan from now on.”

“This is what I’m going to do because I don’t know how else to make this right,” he said.


“We’re up in the air at 30-35,000 feet and don’t have many options”

For more than five years, the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA) has sounded the alarm, urging the FAA to require that naloxone be included in its passenger airlines’ emergency medical kits, saying passenger medical emergencies have and will continue to include opioid overdoses.

AFA represents flight attendants at 19 airlines across the country.

“The opioid epidemic is rampant across the U.S., and just because you’re up in the air doesn’t mean we’re not going to experience the same issues we see in our society on the ground,” AFA spokesperson Taylor Garland told the I-Team.

She added, “We always want to make sure that we have all the tools available to save or help a person’s life when we’re up in the air at 30-35,000 feet and don’t have many options to call for help. And so having drugs like naloxone or Narcan on board would help us in the interim before we can get to the ground and hopefully get that person more help with professionals — EMT or hospitals.”

When asked what she thinks the delay is about, Garland said, “The federal government has a list of rulemakings, obviously, this comes at a cost to the airlines.”

“The need for naloxone on airplanes couldn’t be clearer”

In Washington, D.C. a bill is making its way through Congress that would require naloxone to be carried on all airplanes.

Maryland Congressman David Trone introduced legislation directing the FAA to require opioid overdose medication on all airplanes. Trone’s nephew died of an overdose in 2016.

In a statement to the I-Team, Trone wrote, “The need for naloxone on airplanes couldn’t be clearer. Last year, we lost nearly 110,000 Americans to drug overdoses – many of whom unknowingly ingested counterfeit pills laced with fentanyl and didn’t have the lifesaving tools nearby to prevent tragedy.”

The I-Team asked Florida Senator Rick Scott if he will support the bill in the Senate.

“It makes sense to me. I’ve been very involved in trying to make sure that all of our law enforcement have Narcan, but the truth is, almost everybody that might be around drugs needs to do it,” Scott said. “Just a small bit of fentanyl can kill you. And so Narcan is saving lives.”

The FAA could have done more on its own but hasn’t. A spokesperson for the agency said it’s reviewing the emergency medical kit requirements and has recommended, but not required, including naloxone, saying that would require a rulemaking process it calls “time-consuming” at 18+ months.

The FAA issued its recommendation to include naloxone on board more than three and a half years ago.

The result — some airlines carry it. Many don’t. Like Southwest.

In a statement, a spokesperson for the airline wrote:

“We comply with all required medical equipment onboard, and our Flight Crews are trained to assess significant medical events. Our Crews also ask for the assistance of medical consultants on the ground and qualified medical personnel onboard to assist with medical emergencies on the aircraft.”

Meanwhile, United told the I-Team that Narcan is stocked on its flights.

Delta also confirmed Narcan is included in all of its medical kits.

“Flight attendants receive training for administration and instructions for administration are included in manuals all flight attendants have access to while working flights. They may also ask for assistance from medical professionals on a flight, of course,” a Delta spokesperson said.

The AFA told the I-Team Frontier and Hawaiian Airlines carry naloxone as well.

The I-Team plans to track the legislation making its way through Congress.

If you would like to contact your U.S. senator or representative, we’ve included that information. You can also contact the FAA.

Florida has a website where you can find free naloxone providers and search by county.