Oxygen users welcomed to the 21st century -- finally

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

There's no underestimating the importance of the recent FAA rule that permits airlines to allow respiratory patients to bring on board and use portable oxygen concentrators. The ruling is not perfect, as we'll see, but for the first time ever, the world of modern-day airline travel is in reach for us.
As a frequent flyer needing supplemental oxygen when I fly, I routinely face many obstacles and substantial fees.
Most domestic airlines, for example, charge a flat fee of $100 per leg, and, unfortunately, only the major airlines offer supplemental oxygen -- it is not available on discounted airlines and commuter/regional airlines. To me and other oxygen users, this means we have limited flight/airport options and often have to take connecting flights, increasing the number of legs per trip.
In April, I flew round trip from New York to Paris. Because it was a nonstop flight, my oxygen fee was $200. A few weeks later, I flew round trip from New York to Indianapolis. The only direct flight was on a regional carrier, which would not permit oxygen, so I was routed through a connecting flight in Chicago. My oxygen fee was $400. Interestingly, my actual airfare for that flight was only $204. In fact, supplemental oxygen regularly costs more than my airfare these days.
Additionally, because we are not allowed to bring our own oxygen onto a plane or take the airlines oxygen off the plane, individuals who are oxygen dependent on the ground, must arrange with a home care company (or friend or family member) for ground oxygen during travel. If a home care company is used for this, the charge is often $100 for each "meeting."
What's more, it often takes a leap of faith that the provider will be there to meet you. In March, on my way to Albuquerque, there was a snowstorm and my original flight was canceled. I was rerouted thorough a different city and would be arriving later than first arranged. Although I regularly fly over 50,000 miles per year, I was reduced to a bag of fears worrying about what I would meet -- or not meet -- when I landed in Albuquerque.
The new FAA ruling is an important first step to bringing, what I consider, justice and equality to oxygen users. Today, diagnosis that once were fatal are now chronic. Research and technology have produced drugs and equipment that allow people to live stable and "portable" lives. The airline industry, however, has marginalized an ever increasing group of consumers.
The new regulation is far from perfect. The two portable oxygen concentrators included in the ruling are expensive, and it remains to be seen whether or not home care companies will provide them. If not, the majority of oxygen users very well may not be able to afford them.
In addition, the ruling states travelers must carry enough battery power for the entire trip duration, including layovers and delays. When you add up the time it takes to get to the airport, fly, disembark and travel to your final destination, you're talking many hours. The current portable concentrators have very limited battery time per battery, ranging from 50 minutes to three hours. This would require traveling with several batteries. These batteries weigh about 1.5 pounds and cost $150 each. That's significant additional weight and cost.
The portable concentrators also have cigarette lighter adapters for use on planes and cars so recharging is possible. Nevertheless, one must be ready for the unexpected.
Last month, I flew from New York to San Diego. I was flying on an airline that has electrical outlets at many of its seats and expected to be able to use electrical equipment. At the last moment, the airline switched to a plane that had no electrical outlets at any of the seats. There I was on a six-hours flight with no ability to plug in. On another recent trip from Washington Reagan to LaGuardia, normally a 45-minute flight, we sat on the runway for five hours due to inclement weather at LaGuardia -- with no electrical outlets available.
These are just two reasons why batteries must be available.
The good news is that at least the airline industry and FAA are looking at travel for oxygen users. In addition to the portable concentrators, I am told regulators are testing at least one portable liquid oxygen system, and I hope that at some point they also will revisit the options of cylinder oxygen. For now, the use of the portable concentrators will offer options, ease of travel and most importantly independence to many oxygen users.
At last -- oxygen users are being allowed into the 21st century!


Barbara Rogers is president of the National Emphysema/COPD Association.