Airlines want out of O2 biz

Friday, January 31, 2003

WASHINGTON - The airlines appear committed to being out of the travel oxygen business within the next two to five years, and the reason’s simple:

“Moving tanks around is exactly what they don’t do,” said Phil Porte, executive director of the National Home Oxygen Patients Association. “It’s complicated. Just ask Apria and Lincare.”

Many larger airlines (Delta, American, Continental, for example) provide oxygen to patients who need it, but charge $75 to $150 per leg of the trip. Many smaller airlines don’t mess with travel oxygen, and by law don’t have to. That creates a problem for patients because under existing DOT regulations, oxygen patients can’t take their own systems on planes, and there is a ban on liquid O2. (See related story below).

The easiest way for airlines to get out of the portable O2 business, it appears, would be to help lift the current ban on portable units. To that end, industry representatives have had some success with federal regulators, who are gradually abandoning their 1960s mindset that portable oxygen is unsafe for air travel.

Through an “expedited exemption process,” the U.S. Department of Transportation, the FAA and other regulatory agencies have agreed to review new portable-oxygen technologies. If the regulators feel comfortable with technology, it could be used on a trial basis, provided some airline agrees to participate in a trial.

At the moment, AirSep’s LifeStyle Portable Oxygen Concentrator is going through the expedited exemption process, as is Puritan Bennett’s Helios liquid oxygen unit.

While regulators appear intrigued by modern portable oxygen systems and are sympathetic to the plight of patients who want to travel by air, the wheels of government grind slowly, and there’s no telling when a change in current regulations will occur. (Issues surrounding homeland security could also impact how soon or if changes to existing rules happen, say industry sources.)

Modernizing the current system and allowing oxygen patients to bring their own portable systems on board is critical because the current system is “fraught with the opportunity for service failure,” said Bob Fary, Apria’s director of respiratory services.

In a typical scenario with a patient traveling by air, the provider has to meet the patient at the airport with oxygen and stay with him until he boards the plane. If the patient has to meet a connecting flight, another provider has to meet him with oxygen and stay with him until he boards the connecting flight. When the patient arrives at his destination, another provider has to meet him.

“It’s a big hassle,” Fary said. HME
Learning the hard way
WASHINGTON - A Utah woman learned recently what HME providers have known for years: that airlines aren’t obligated to provide travel oxygen to their passengers.

Susan Boswell, who suffers from a lung disease, requested that SkyWest Airlines provide oxygen for her during flights between St. George, Utah, and Salt Lake City. When the airline refursed her request, Boswell took them to court. In late October, a federal judge ruled that SkyWest is not required by federal law to provide supplemental oxygen equipment to passengers.

Boswell is appealing the verdict.

Boswell argued that the Air Carrier Access Act required airlines to provide medical oxygen to passengers, but Judge Paul G. Cassell disagreed. He noted that the statute only allows the provision of oxygen under a program specifically approved by the FAA, and SkyWest does not have such a program.

Like all commercial airlines, SkyWest provides supplemental oxygen for use in the event of cabin depressurization and medical emergencies. But like many airlines, particularly smaller outfits, SkyWest does not provide supplemental oxygen to its passengers. HME