FAA liberates patients; rule simplifies air travel

Sunday, July 31, 2005

WASHINGTON -- In what one industry watcher called "a great day for oxygen users," the Federal Aviation Administration passed a rule in July that should make it much easier for respiratory patients to travel onboard commercial airlines.
On July 12, the FAA issued a rule that allows, but does not require, airlines to let patients travel with portable oxygen concentrators during all phases of the flight, including take-off and landing.
This is the first time oxygen patients have had the opportunity to fly commercially with their own oxygen. Currently, many airlines don't provide oxygen because it's expensive and beyond their scope of expertise. This means oxygen patients have limited and often inconvenient flight options.
The rule change, which goes into effect Aug. 11, comes after years of advocacy by patients, providers and manufacturers to convince federal regulators that modern portable oxygen systems are safe for air travel. Because regulators can't monitor the contents of oxygen cylinders, patients probably won't be able to bring them on board anytime soon, say industry sources.
Currently, only Inogen and AirSep make portable concentrators approved by the FAA for this purpose. At some point, however, the FAA plans to develop generic performance standards, and if new products meet these, patients will be able to use them onboard commercial airlines.
The rule also eliminates the lengthy certification process airlines must undertake if they want to provide medical oxygen in flight. Because this process was so expensive, many airlines, especially budget carriers, shunned it.
Although airlines don't have to allow portable concentrators on board, Airsep President Joe Priest said he believes they'll welcome the change. Inogen's vice president of sales, Bob Fary, agrees.
"Most of the (airline) people we've spoken to like the idea because they spending a lot of money and not making on the provision of oxygen," Fary said. "I think air carriers may see this as an opportunity because people who travel with oxygen never travel alone. So its an opportunity to sell two seats."
Fary called the new regulation a "huge move" and a "great day for oxygen users." The next step, he said, is getting to the point where portable concentrators are -- like cell phones and computers -- considered portable electronic devices. When that happens, all airlines will have to allow them onboard.

Allowing patients to bring their own oxygen onboard will also benefit providers, who now face a logistical nightmare arranging oxygen for patients between connections and at destinations.
The new regulation also advances Airsep's belief that over the next three to five years portable concentrators will be the dominant form of ambulatory oxygen, Priest said.
"We always have felt that the portable concentrator will do to ambulatory oxygen what stationaly oxygen did for in home use, which was eventually to dominate the market," he said.