What are the most common mistakes you see funeral directors making when conducting air transfers, and how should they be doing it?

By: Dave McComb and the Team at Eagle’s Wings Air
Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Eagle’s Wings Air has been managing the air transportation of human remains for the last 10 years, working with funeral home professionals across the country for domestic and international ship outs. We have high level relationships with executives from the cargo division of all major airlines. In our vast experience of managing over 125,000 flights, and we know a thing or two about a thing or two. Here are some of the most common easily avoidable mistakes: 

1. Scheduling funeral services before the “guest of honor” has arrived. We at EWA always ask if services are scheduled at  destination. If the flight is international, we suggest not scheduling services at least until you have a confirmed flight itinerary. However, flights change. Delays happen. Documents go missing. Mistakes are made. Having experienced these situations firsthand, we always encourage you to suggest to the family to wait until their loved one has arrived to schedule services. Put yourself in this situation and imagine the estimated arrival day is Friday in Lusaka, Africa and services are scheduled on Saturday. Then a mix-up in paperwork happens at the origin or the domestic airline fails to transfer to the international carrier in time to make the flight. Flight has to be rebooked resulting in a 48 hour delay. Now what? Please educate your families on the complexities of international flights. You will save yourself the stress of having to tell them their father will miss his own funeral. 

2. Not having the proper paperwork/documents and not verifying with the consulate to get the most current shipping requirements. You think you have everything you need to ship a body internationally. After all, you’ve done this before. You get to the airport, and the remains are refused because you do not have a certified original copy of the death certificate. You didn’t need one last year when you shipped to the same country, but because you did not check with the country’s consulate, you didn’t know the requirements had changed. You have to get the proper paperwork and get the flight rebooked. Now the estimated arrival is one week later, and the family has to reschedule services and figure out how to pay for additional expenses for the family who traveled to that country. Call the consulate. Every time.

3. Not weighing a shipment when the estimated weight is close to 500 pounds. A shipment weighing more than 500 pounds certainly complicates things. The price of the flight increases dramatically, and the routing choices are decreased dramatically. If your flight is booked for under 500 pounds (including decedent and shipping container), and it actually weighs more than 500 pounds, when you get to the airport cargo station to drop off, your shipment will be refused. There are several reasons: the airport doesn’t have planes large enough to accommodate an over-sized or overweight shipment, the cargo station simply doesn’t have the manpower to lift and load into the aircraft, or the connecting and/or destination airports or airplanes cannot accommodate your shipment. This will result in a rebooking and a delay, causing further heartache to your client family. Weigh your shipments to get the most accurate weight. 

4. Not communicating certain pertinent information when booking the flight. There is information that needs to be shared at the time of booking that may not seem important to you, but things like disinterred remains, over-sized container dimensions, overweight shipment, high-profile case (celebrity, politician, etc.), military remains (active duty or retired), airline employee or relative of airline employee, any requests by the family, can make a difference in the reservation and/or cost of the flight. Share all information at the time of booking. 

5. Not setting the family’s expectations about how long international confirmation can take and sharing a flight itinerary that has not yet been confirmed. If you are not involved in the air transportation shipping industry, it certainly seems unreasonable that you can’t simply pick up the phone and reserve a flight. Unlike passenger travel, where there is an inventory of seats available, cargo is booked by space (dimensions and weight). There is also limited space for human remains. An airline must confirm that space is available and there are not already human remains on board. The max number is two. That’s the delay in reservations for ALL flights, but if you are requesting a flight for an international destination where the domestic airline has to transfer to an international carrier (called an interline shipment), the confirmation will take up to three business days or longer, not including weekends and holidays. The best thing to do in these cases is to set the family’s expectations on how long this process will take. You will not get an instant reservation. Do not share estimated flights with the family. Wait until you have the confirmed flight reservation. 

6. Shipping personal items with the decedent. Airline requirements and security measures prohibit shipping anything other than the decedent and burial clothing. Do not include personal items, like jewelry, pictures, keepsakes, memorabilia, etc. When discovered, your shipment will most likely be refused. Save yourself time and hassle. Ship these things via a courier or send with a family member if the item has significant monetary value. 

7. Having escorts on an interline flight. International flights are difficult enough without adding the complexity of having family members requesting to escort their loved one home. What may not be realized is that an international interline cargo shipment will have multi-legged flights and non-traditional layover times. With so many moving components to a flight like this, it leaves opportunity for delays and errors. I would always suggest not putting your client family through the risk of additional anxiety and the potential for heartache when things don’t go perfectly. If the family insists on traveling to the destination, encourage them to pick the most comfortable flights and routing to get to their international destination around the same day as their loved one is scheduled to arrive. 

8. Not checking the flight status before driving to the airport to pick up. Checking a flight status is a very easy thing to do. If you were picking up a friend at the airport, you would probably go online to check to see they are arriving on time, especially if you have to drive two hours to the airport. Human remains fly on passenger planes (or cargo only carriers). Delays happen. Just because the weather is perfect where you are doesn’t mean terrible snow storms aren’t happening at the origin or connecting airport cities. Check the flight status. 

9. Always calling the same airline because it’s easier. It takes time to check routes and pricing on multiple airlines, so I can understand why you might always “just call Delta”. This is not necessarily in the best interest of your client family. By looking at multiple airlines you have choices in price and routing, thereby finding the best logistics solution. Either call every airline, or just call EWA. 

10. Sending an infant or youth in an adult-sized shipping container. The average current cost for an adult shipment (under 500 pounds) going from Cleveland to Las Vegas, as an example, is $687. Cost for a shipment at 70 pounds averages $270. If you are using an adult-size shipping container to send an infant or youth, you are wasting your client family’s money. Use the proper sized shipping containers. 

David McComb, Chairman and Owner, offers Eagle’s Wings Air experience in the death care industry since 1986. He was the President and 4th generation to operate D.O. McComb and Sons Funeral Homes which is the 2nd largest funeral home in Indiana. David is a licensed Funeral Director in Indiana and Ohio, COC and has a Bachelor of Arts degree in Business from Indiana University as well as an Associates of Arts degree in Mortuary Science from Mid America College of funeral Service. Mr. McComb is a successful entrepreneur purchasing and creating several businesses including Birkmeier Monument Company, Terra Services, Premier Preneed, Estate Security, Eagles Wings Air and Fort Wayne Financial. David has been very active in representing death care professionals as a member of Indiana State Board of Funeral and Cemetery Service and acts as Liaison to the Attorney General for 14 years. He is also a Board member and contributor to the Funeral Service Foundation. 

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