Lung Ailments No Longer Standing in Way of Flight

Oxygen devices aid mobility, but also raise safety issues.

Businesswoman Patti Wilson flew more than 3 million miles until she was grounded by a chronic lung ailment. Now, six years later, she's one of a growing number of fliers with lung problems who are returning to the skies or flying more frequently.

Buoyed by new technology and recent airline and government initiatives, Wilson and others are using oxygen devices to breathe in-flight. "It's wonderful," says the 60-year-old Port Costa, Calif., resident who retired from her management consulting job and now flies for pleasure. "I can travel again."

Travelers with pulmonary disorders are thrilled that they have better access to the skies, making it easier to visit clients or family, even to take faraway vacations. But some medical experts say in-flight respiratory emergencies are common, and some fliers with serious pulmonary problems are not healthy enough to fly. Last year, airlines made about 2,800 calls for emergency assistance for in-flight respiratory problems, says MedAire, a company that assists most airlines.

There's also concern that the breathing devices used by passengers with lung ailments could pose some risk to other fliers. The government warns that devices should not be near an open flame and says airlines must ensure that they don't interfere with navigational and other aircraft equipment.

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) -- a group of diseases that includes emphysema, chronic bronchitis and in some cases, asthma -- afflicts 10 million to 24 million Americans and is a leading cause of death, illness and disability, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More than 1 million people with COPD or another respiratory disease require supplemental oxygen for routine activities, the American Lung Association says.

Until recently, most airlines didn't provide or allow supplemental oxygen aboard planes. That made it difficult or impossible for most people with COPD to fly commercial jets. But prodded by the government to give equal access to the medically impaired, airlines began changing their policies in the past year.

The Federal Aviation Administration issued a rule last July that says airlines can allow passengers to bring approved oxygen devices aboard. Two months later, the Department of Transportation issued a proposed rule requiring airlines to allow the devices and to supply oxygen for anyone with a medical problem.

Nine of 19 U.S. airlines surveyed by USA TODAY now provide bottled oxygen for a fee, and 11 airlines allow passengers to carry on their own portable oxygen concentrators -- a relatively new product that converts cabin air into oxygen. Continental Airlines this month will become the 12th carrier to allow concentrators aboard, says spokesman Dave Messing.

Each device is about 12 inches long, 6 inches wide and 12 inches tall, and, with a battery, weighs 10 pounds. A passenger wheels or uses a shoulder pack to carry the device. The unit can be stowed under a seat in front of the passenger.

Breathing under pressure

Joan Garrett, CEO of MedAire, which provides in-flight medical assistance to about 90 airlines, supports the move to make it easier for pulmonary patients to fly. But she's worried that people with only one lung or serious breathing problems might think that an oxygen device guarantees their well-being in-flight. It doesn't, she says.

Many people with pulmonary disorders have multiple problems, such as heart disease, kidney problems and diabetes, and probably should not be on planes, Garrett says. The FAA requires that passengers have a doctor's permission before flying with an oxygen device, but Garrett says some doctors give that clearance without understanding the detrimental effects that altitude can have on an impaired passenger. Air inside an aircraft cabin is pressurized to an altitude of 8,000 feet.

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