Lung Ailments No Longer Standing in Way of Flight

Oxygen devices aid mobility, but also raise safety issues.

Airlines oppose a Department of Transportation proposal that would require them to provide free bottles of oxygen for passengers with lung problems. In comments submitted to the DOT this year, the Air Transport Association said it would cost $103 million annually to provide oxygen, and more to train the flight crew on its use. Providing free bottles of oxygen might also discourage passengers from bringing their own oxygen concentrators aboard, the airlines say. The concentrators store only enough oxygen for a person's next breath, says Risinger, and are safer than bottles of oxygen, which can accelerate a fire and is considered, according to DOT regulations, a hazardous material.

Trouble on board

However, the Air Transport Association also told the DOT that more oxygen concentrators on planes might lead to more medical emergencies. The group said a passenger during the past year failed to bring enough batteries for a concentrator, and an unidentified airline had to give the passenger oxygen from a back-up supply that's available for all passengers if there's a cabin depressurization. The passenger exhausted the back-up supply.

Airlines don't carry extra batteries for the units, and it's a passenger's responsibility to bring extra batteries, says Lana Hilling, lung health services coordinator of John Muir Health, a non-profit hospital and medical services center in California.

The Air Transport Association fears airlines could be saddled with extra costs for emergency landings if the DOT rule leads to more widespread use of medical oxygen in-flight. Emergency landings cost $6,000 to $100,000, the group says.

The proposed rule -- opposed by airlines -- would also require airlines to test passengers' oxygen concentrators and make sure they meet safety standards. Inogen and other manufacturers should foot the bill for such testing, airlines say.

No problem, says Risinger, who expects the DOT's proposed rule to be revised accordingly. But DOT spokesman Bill Mosley would not comment on what action the agency will take or give a date when a final rule will be issued.

The Lung Association's Billings says he understands safety and cost concerns, but air travel is "very important" to people with pulmonary disorders. It gives them "freedom of mobility," he says.

Hilling adds that air travel increases pulmonary patients' quality of life. "It gives them the ability to do what all of us take for granted."

For Tom Haderlein, 70, knocking down barriers for people who need supplemental oxygen "is a monumental improvement."

The retired resident of Kenilworth, Ill., had a lung transplant about six years ago. He says the transplant is failing, and he's on oxygen every minute of the day.

"I would like to fly," he says. "I want to see my son in Atlanta later this year."

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