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United Airlines to join other carriers in putting defibrillators on its planes

Less than two weeks after being sued in a passenger's death, United Airlines joined other carriers in plans to equip planes with defibrillators, which can revive victims of cardiac arrest.

United said its decision had nothing to do with a lawsuit alleging the airline's onboard medical equipment was not adequate to treat the cardiac arrest suffered by a passenger on a 1995 flight from Boston to San Francisco."We've been looking at this for a number of years and decided there's very clearly medical value in it," Dr. Gary Kohn, United's corporate medical director, said Friday.

United joins American, Delta and several international carriers in planning to include automated external defibrillators on many of their flights by year's end. The devices deliver an electric shock to restore heart rhythm.

Industry observers say they expect most other U.S. carriers to follow suit.

But some flight attendants worry U.S. carriers are more concerned about good public relations than the public's health. An airline union representative, who demanded anonymity, said crew members were concerned about their liability in using the defibrillators on ailing passengers.

American, which led U.S. carriers by announcing last July it would equip overseas flights with defibrillators, recently said the computer notebook-size devices had been used 32 times, although the equipment determined electric shocks were needed on only two occasions. In both those cases, the passengers died.

"These devices aren't like in `E.R.' where there's all these monitors and you stick paddles on someone and turn the juice on," said Kohn, the United health officer. "The only thing the flight attendant needs to do is to apply a couple of pads, stand back and the machine's computer makes the decision from there."

The battery-powered systems send alternating electric currents when deemed necessary and also provide voice prompts, such as "clear airway" to help non-medical personnel.

The carriers note flight attendants first are trained to ask whether a doctor is aboard the flight who can assist in an emergency. But a few hours' training will be all flight attendants need to use the defibrillators, the equipment makers say.

Qantas and Virgin Atlantic have carried defibrillators for years. The devices, which cost about $3,000 each, have been getting more public attention over the past year after several people were reported saved with them.

In cardiac arrest, the heart stops beating, and a victim is dead within minutes without lifesaving measures. Studies show the nationwide survival rate from sudden cardiac arrest is about 6 percent, but chances improve 10 percent a minute if a person can be defibrillated within 10 minutes of collapse.