"They won't let me on," said Carl Malachowski, 75, of Naples. "They don't know what it is."
"They" are the security screeners who inspect carry-on luggage for the Transportation Security Administration.
Malachowski has had chronic obstructive pulmonary disease for nearly a decade. He bought an AirSep concentrator about two years ago, but security screeners won't let him take it on a plane, even though he carries a medical certificate, he said.
"I'm pretty sure they think the concentrator has oxygen in it, and it doesn't," he said. "They're misinformed. They don't know what's going on."
When Malachowski and his wife, Jeannette, flew to New York for Christmas, they sent the AirSep ahead and trusted in an on-time arrival for the 2 1/2-hour flight. He can breathe on his own for that long, he said.
The Malachowskis plan a trip to London in September for their 54th wedding anniversary, and Jeannette said she has been trying frantically to find reassurance that they can take the concentrator through security.
"We'd be happy just to bring it as a carry-on," she said. "We'll buy their oxygen, but we don't want to store it in baggage because if they lose the baggage, we'd arrive in London with no concentrator."
When asked about Carl Malachowski's problem, Lauren Stover, public affairs manager for the security administration's South Atlantic region, said she was unfamiliar with the device.
"The term 'oxygen concentrator' is not a popular medical device that we see with frequency," Stover said. "I don't know if we were even advised of this rule change, so there may be a disconnect."
Bill Mosley, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Transportation, of which the FAA is a part, said the agency had informed the security administration of the rules change.
"It seems to be a question of how they communicate those procedures to their people at the airport," Mosley said.
But Stover and the security administration have a point. As many as 24 million Americans have emphysema or chronic bronchitis, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control, but only a fraction of them are likely to own an oxygen concentrator. An individual screener is unlikely to encounter them.
After investigating, Stover sent a statement by e-mail: "The oxygen concentrators are permitted beyond the TSA passenger screening checkpoints once the Transportation Security Officers conduct appropriate screening on the device," she wrote. "The device should be disconnected. If the passenger is unable to disconnect the device, we do have protocols in place to clear them. If passengers do experience a problem whereby they are not permitted beyond the checkpoint, they should request a TSA supervisor to resolve any confusion."
Some relief may be on the way for passengers with portable concentrators, once they get past the security gate. The FAA is reviewing still another rules change that would require all airlines to test proposed breathing devices and, once they're found to be safe, allow passengers to bring them on board or provide oxygen free of charge.
"It could be another year, but I hope not," said Paul Billings, a lobbyist for the American Lung Association, who expects the rules to be approved because they came from Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta's office. "This is something he's championed."
Airline policies differ
In August, the Federal Aviation Administration dropped its objection to portable oxygen concentrators on board flights but gave individual airlines the option of allowing one, both or neither of the approved models. How some airlines have responded:
American Airlines: Permits neither the AirSep nor Inogen One on its flights. Passengers who need supplemental oxygen must buy it from the airline for $100 per leg of the flight, with 72 hours' advance notice required.
Continental Airlines: The approved concentrators may be carried on the plane but cannot be used in flight.
Delta Air Lines: Allows the Inogen One concentrator to be used on flights. Charges a fee to provide medical pre-approvals and requires 48 hours of advance notice.
Portable oxygen concentrators are small, portable devices that separate oxygen from nitrogen and other gases in the air and provide oxygen to users at greater than 90 percent concentration.
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Major airlines provide oxygen but typically charge $75 to $100 for each leg of a flight. That increases the cost of a direct round-trip ticket by as much as $200.