Cristina Penton was 36 weeks pregnant when she boarded Spirit Airlines flight 971 from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, to Dallas. Little did she know she’d be stepping off the flight with one more passenger in tow.
Penton, her two children and the passengers and crew of Spirit flight 971 welcomed baby Christoph Lezcano into the world Saturday evening after a surprise delivery mid-flight.
Penton was in Fort Lauderdale picking up her children before flying home to Phoenix. She had carried two babies to full-term, and though heavily pregnant, she was unconcerned about flying just weeks out from her due date. But almost immediately after her Dallas-bound flight took off, she started to feel a bit strange.
“Within 10 to 15 minutes of takeoff, I began to feel like something was not fine,” Penton said during a press conference recorded by the New Orleans Advocate.
Fellow passenger Shelley Hedgecock Starks was seated near Penton. The mother of four said she knew right away that that baby wanted out.
“I sensed almost immediately that she was going to have the baby,” Starks told TODAY. “As a mother of four myself, I kept looking over at her and thinking, ‘Oh my goodness, that mother is about to pop. She is going to have that baby soon.’”
Starks commended the Spirit crew members who did their best to keep Penton calm. They took her blood pressure and vitals, and brought her damp towels and bottled water — free of charge. Soon it became clear that Penton wasn’t just sick. She was in labor.
"Everything started happening very quickly," Penton said in a statement. "I didn't think I was having the baby because it was too soon, but after a few minutes, I knew I needed medical attention. The flight attendants contacted doctors on the ground and they advised the flight attendants to see if there were any medical personnel on board. As it turned out, there was a pediatrician and a nurse. Soon after that, it was clear I was having my baby, and I was in pure panic."
The Spirit crew took swift steps to divert the flight to New Orleans Louis Armstrong Airport.
Medical emergencies happen on flights quite often, according to Spirit spokesperson Paul Berry. And while it is rare that a flight gets rerouted due to an emergency, it is rarer still that a baby is born in-flight. Usually labor is long enough that pilots can actually land a plane and get the mother to a hospital before delivery.
“That was not the case here. From the time that her contractions started to the time the baby was delivered, the plane was still in the air, so the baby was actually born on-board,” Berry told TODAY.
In the rare case that a baby is coming — and coming fast — flight attendants are prepared with basic training on how to deliver babies. The crew aboard Penton’s Spirit flight worked with physicians from MedAire, an airline emergency response company, along with pediatrician Dr. Hector Barrezueta and registered nurse Rhondula Green, who were aboard the flight, to help care for Penton.
Within a matter of minutes, Christoph Lezcano was born.
“It was what he wanted. We were all just along for the ride,” Penton said during the press conference.
The plane broke into applause after the baby was born.
“You don’t hear about things like this happening. This is not an everyday occurrence,” Starks told TODAY. “I think everybody was just excited. Then after she had the baby, everybody was cheering and clapping. Everybody was just happy.”
For Starks, the moment was especially memorable. She and her husband, Scott Starks, had decided last minute to fly standby so as to get home after a long vacation. If not for that decision, the couple wouldn't have been there to witness Lezcano’s birth.
“I feel a connection, a different kind of connection,” Starks said. “You are in your own experience when you’re having a child, but to see someone else happening right there in front of your eyes is just amazing,” Starks said.
Medical personnel met Penton and Lezcano at the gate in New Orleans and transported them to Oshner Medical Center in Kenner, Louisiana. Although he was thousands of miles from home and thousands of feet off the ground at birth, Lezcano was born a healthy 7 pounds and 19.5 inches — and without any complications for mother or baby.
For Spirit’s part, they’ve offered free birthday flights to Penton’s family until baby Christoph turns 21. But they won’t be using those anytime soon. Penton and her three children plan to drive the rest of way home from New Orleans to Phoenix.
Alexandra Bacallao contributed to this post.