Emphysema patient Adele Plotkin of Skokie needs to breathe supplemental oxygen 24 hours a day.
But when she flies to California each year to visit her sister, airlines won't let her bring oxygen.
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. If there are connections, the cost is even higher.
Discount carriers such as Southwest and ATA don't provide oxygen at any price. "We can never take advantage of a cheapie airline," Plotkin said.
That might change, though. The U.S. Transportation Department has proposed a rule that would require airplanes to provide medical oxygen for free.
About 1 million Americans with conditions such as emphysema and chronic bronchitis require supplemental oxygen. They "deserve the same access to our air transportation system as do travelers with other disabilities or medical conditions," Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta said.
'YOU HAVE TO BE VERY CAREFUL'
Airlines don't allow passengers to bring their own oxygen tanks on board because oxygen is a fire hazard. In 1996, for example, a fire caused by oxygen generators in the cargo hold of a ValuJet flight caused a crash in the Florida Everglades that killed all 110 people on board.
"Oxygen is a dangerous good and highly flammable," said American Airlines spokeswoman Mary Frances Fagan. "You have to be very careful with it."
Flying with oxygen also is a hassle. A passenger typically has to submit a certificate from a doctor at least 48 hours before the flight.
An alternative to oxygen tanks is a portable machine called a concentrator that takes oxygen from the air and delivers it in a concentrated form to the patient. The Federal Aviation Administration has approved two brands of concentrators. However, airlines are not required to let passengers use them.
BENEFITS MAY OUTWEIGH COSTS
And even if they're allowed, concentrators are expensive. They cost $4,000 to $5,000, or at least $100 a week to rent, said Rhonda Williams of the American Lung Association of Metropolitan Chicago.
The proposed rule would cost airlines between $26 million and $58 million a year, according to a study for the Transportation Department by Battelle, a consultant. But Battelle estimated the benefits would range from $60 million to $150 million. Benefits include savings to passengers and more ticket sales for airlines.
The Transportation Department has given interested parties until Jan. 30 to comment on its proposed rule. The Air Transport Association, which represents airlines, hasn't responded yet.
But oxygen patients have given the agency an earful.
One flier wrote, "Discrimination against people with disabilities seems alive and well where the people in need of supplemental oxygen are concerned." Another oxygen user commented, "Under the current rules, I refuse to fly."
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