Air travel is complicated for oxygen-dependent people, involving fees that can double the cost of the ticket and periods of time without access to oxygen. Patient and professional advocacy efforts might help.

By Anne Welsbacher

My mother and a close friend have been trying to work their way west for a visit all summer. Among the infirmities of age that afflict us all sooner or later, my friend, whom I’ll call Jenny, recently has had to add COPD to her coping list. She has traveled all her life, both as a driven career woman and for pleasure, and she isn’t about to change her habits with retirement. But her health—and frustrating regulations in the airline industry—have conspired against her.

Anne Welsbacher

As the article on air travel in this issue explains, oxygen-dependent patients wanting to fly are not allowed to carry oxygen on the plane, but instead must choose between purchasing air from the airline—at a cost that can be $100 per flight—or doing without. More accurately, the choice always involves doing without, because even those who pay for their air on board have no access to oxygen during layovers.

Jenny claims that she can manage without oxygen for short durations. But airline restrictions, beyond the financial barriers they put up for travelers, “are really harming people’s health,” she says, especially with the additional time involved in layovers.

In February, the American Association for Respiratory Care, jointly with the Alpha-1 Foundation, wrote Department of Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta and Federal Aviation Administrator Marion C. Blakey asking that battery-operated portable oxygen concentrators be allowed on commercial flights. No action has yet come of this effort to bring the airline industry up to speed, but it is an important first step on an important issue—equal accessibility for all United States citizens.

In the meantime, a major ally in putting Jenny on the road again has been her health care company, which provides free delivery of oxygen anywhere in the country that she travels. The company’s Web site also offers tips for travelers and advice on their rights. Air travelers may always request a private screening. Carry-on bag limits do not include medical supplies or equipment needed by travelers with disabilities. A large range of mobility aids and assistive devices are permitted through security checkpoints.

When it dawned on Jenny early this summer that travel would be more difficult for her now, she was plunged into depression, believing that she in essence could never leave the house again. But as time passed, she had a talk with herself and decided that her two choices were very clear: she could sit and be depressed, or she could get out and travel.

So Jenny will drive from her small town in Illinois to Louisville, Ky, about an hour away, with her oxygen in the back seat. From there she will fly to Wichita, Kan, to pick up my mother. Then, assuming there are no delays, the two of them will fly to Dallas, and wait for an hour (or 2) for their connecting flight. Then they will fly to Los Angeles, where they will take a taxi to my house (security measures being what they are at LAX, picking up visitors has become risky business), and where (I hope) Jenny’s oxygen will be waiting for her, and we can all breathe easier for the remainder of her visit. 


Anne Welsbacher is the former editor of RT. For more information, contact [email protected].