Traveling with Oxygen: Tips for You

March 14th, 2012 | Author: COPD Coach

Dear COPD Coach,

My husband is a COPD patient and uses oxygen. We will be flying soon to our daughter’s wedding. This is the first time we have flown since my husband was diagnosed. We have arranged to rent a portable oxygen concentrator for the trip. Are there any tips we need to know before taking this trip?

Wedding Jitters

Dear Wedding Jitters,

Flying with oxygen today is much easier than it used to be, thanks to new legislation providing oxygen patients access to air travel. With that said, there are still some obstacles that need your attention.

First, it is very important that you obtain the unit you are renting a few days prior to your travel. The extra time will allow you to make certain that the unit functions properly, and give you the opportunity to get familiar with it. The last thing you want or need is to start your journey only to find out the unit is not working correctly, or that you don’t know how to use it. A problem with many rental units is that the batteries may be old or not properly maintained. Be sure you are able to use the unit for the full amount of time you will need it while flying.

Airlines require that you have 150% of the battery capacity you will need for your trip. That means if the flight is 2 hours, you would need 3 hours worth of battery. Please note that this does not include your traveling time to and from the airport, or the time waiting for your flight (although in the time spent waiting at the gate you can save the battery by plugging into a wall outlet as mentioned later in this reply)

Make sure that you carry the extra batteries you will need and your charger in your carry-on luggage, along with enough of your medications to last you a couple days in case your luggage gets lost. Also be sure to carry a spare cannula! Your letter did not say if you require oxygen 24/7 or just for flying. If you do require oxygen full time, make sure you have made arrangements for oxygen at your destination or that the concentrator you have is capable of being your 24/7 source.

All airlines require that a medical form be on file prior to your flight. This form specifies what type of POC you are traveling with, your liter flow and must be signed by your doctor, also asking for parameters on how you should adjust your oxygen setting in case of low oxygen saturations during flight or with an increased altitude at your destinationYou need to check your airline’s website for a copy of their form. Some airlines only require that you bring the form with you at check-in, however, most will require you to fax it to them at least 48 hours prior to your flight. You must also have the form “on your person” at all times during the flight. Most airlines require oxygen patients to sit in a window seat, but most will not automatically make those arrangements.

The reason for having you sit by the window is that in an emergency, your seat mates will not be hindered by trying to get around your equipment and hoses. Well before your flight, call their reservations number, explain that you are traveling with oxygen and request a window seat.

Airlines require that you check in at the ticket counter, and most will not allow an oxygen user to check in prior to the flight on the internet. When you get to the ticket counter you will be required to show them your unit and demonstrate that you have enough batteries for the trip with a 50% reserve. Get to the airport early and allow yourself plenty of extra time.

It is never a bad idea to request a wheel chair, and in fact it has many advantages. Your oxygen level will tend to be less  get desaturated from all the walking, you will speed through security and you will be more rested for the remainder of your trip. When you get to your gate, look for a seat next to an electrical outlet, and immediately start charging your unit to full capacity.

Most flights board about a half hour before departure. Well before the boarding process, make sure to use a restroom. It is difficult to leave your seat once you are in the air if you feel the need to use the facilities during the flight.

In every case, always request to board the flight early. This allows you time to get settled and relaxed prior to the flight. Also make sure that you have your batteries handy and that you carry a pulse oximeter to check your oxygen saturations regularly during the flight. If your sats start to go down, don’t hesitate to adjust your oxygen!

Hope this helps, and have a great trip!

The COPD Coach

Ask the Expert is aimed at providing information for individuals with COPD to take to your doctor, and is not in any way intended to be medical advice.

If you would like to submit a question to the Coaches Corner email us atcoachescorner@copdfoundation.org. We would love to hear your questions and comments. You can address your emails to any of the following: COPD Coach, Caregiver Coach, COPD Doctor or COPD RT.

13 comments

  1. If you use oxygen on a regular basis, you will most likely need portable oxygen whenever you travel. Also, patients with certain types of lung disease may need oxygen therapy when traveling,even if they do not normally use portable oxygen. When planning air travel, be sure to ask your doctor whether you will need portable oxygen for your trip if you have any of the following problems:
    -Emphysema or “COPD”
    -Pulmonary $brosis or interstitial lung disease
    -Pulmonary hypertension
    -Have diffculty breathing with normal daily activity

  2. If you use oxygen on a regular basis, you will most likely need portable oxygen whenever you travel. Also, patients with certain types of lung disease may need oxygen therapy when traveling,even if they do not normally use portable oxygen. When planning air travel, be sure to ask your doctor whether you will need portable oxygen for your trip if you have any of the following problems:
    -Emphysema or “COPD”
    -Pulmonary $brosis or interstitial lung disease
    -Pulmonary hypertension
    -Have di#culty breathing with normal daily activity

  3. annmarie says:

    this is great advice thank you for sharing . what do you suggest if someone needs more than what a poc can give them
    can they buy o2 from the airlines . I want to take my mom to florida to visit her sister but she is on 4 liters continous flow is it possible to do
    thanks

  4. COPD Coach says:

    Most of the large jets are pressurized to about 8,000 ft. The smaller regional jets don’t fly as high and are usually pressurized at 4,000 or lower. Most POCs are able to function up to around 10,000 ft of pressurization. If your oxygen unit is not keeping up with your oxygen needs during flight, you have the wrong concentrator.

    Secondly, the purpose of boarding the flight early is to get set up and get your equipment running so that it is producing oxygen when the plane takes off. Some units take longer than others to get up to speed.

    Lastly, Mary is very right in saying that few airlines now provide oxygen. However, they do all carry cylinders in case your POC were to give out.

  5. Jim says:

    Very useful advice. Thanks everyone.

  6. Dee says:

    WOW! What a learning experience! I haven’t traveled for the past 3 years and not with O2.
    Thank you for your experiences with 02.

  7. MaryBark says:

    One thing that came up this week. The patient took a Sequal eclipse 3 to Newark. Her husband checked out the POC prior to her leaving. Her Power Cord was not compatible with the Device. The Cord from her company’s sequal eclipse 2 was mixed up. That POC was going out to a customer that same morning. One was a 3 pronged, the other 2 pronged. Nice catch by the hubby who was helping out his wife. Bad news for the provider that never noticed that the cords were not interchangable. #2 POC’s that are pulse only cannot be added to CPAP/BIPAP devices. Your oxygen levels need to be checked prior to leaving if you plan on using it at night. Most instructions state that the may not oxygenate you adequately at night. They also have limitations for operating temperature/ altitude maximums and some don’t achieve maximum operation for 20 minutes. “read the fine print, not the spec sheets” Look for credible dose studies for the devices that are out on the market. Try out before using, don’t buy if you don’t know that it oxygenates you adequately. http://www.ltotnet.org/Portable%20Oxygen%20Concentrators.pdf

    Bob does great work studying the limitations. Oxygen systems just need to make oxygen, they don’t need to meet the needs of the user. Cute and little needs to meet the needs of the patient by providing enough oxygen. That is the goal of LTOT. Beware of conserving devices claims. Your levels must maintain with activity.

  8. MaryBark says:

    o2 users need 25% more o2 in flight, than on the ground, near sea level. The small dose oxygen flow on many POC’s does not meet the needs of many patients.. Pulse dose is not “liters per minute” If you need more than 3 liters on the ground, no POC can meet your +25% need.
    I have had about 100 patients make the flight with POC and not one was allowed to “plug in” Batteries are heavy and you may need help with your POC and the full compliment of batteries. It is not uncommon to have to carry 4 batteries. An oximeter is essential to titrate your needs and conserve the battery life.
    Checking each airlines web site:

    United no longer provides oxygen in flight,
    US Air no longer provides oxygen

    Delta Provided Oxygen Service:
    Delta no longer provides compressed medical oxygen. Passengers may use their own Portable Oxygen Concentrators (POC) if on the FAA approved list.

    Southwest does not provide in flight 02.

    Jet blue does not provide 02.

    American airlines provides 02 0.5-6LPM for 100$ per segment, customer must make arrangements at layovers and pre/post flight.

  9. Karen Deitemeyer says:

    Philip, It’s my understanding that the planes are pressurized to 8,000 ft or below – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cabin_pressurization

    “A typical cabin altitude, such as the Boeing 767′s, is maintained at 6,900 feet (2,100 m) when cruising at 39,000 feet (12,000 m).[2] The trend in new aircraft is to lower the cabin altitude: the Airbus A380 features 5,000 ft (1,500 m) when cruising at 43,000 feet (13,000 m),[3][4] while the lowest currently flying is the Bombardier Global Express which features 4,500 ft (1,400 m) when cruising at 41,000 feet (12,000 m).[5][6][7]

    Keeping the cabin altitude below 8,000 ft (2,400 m) generally avoids significant hypoxia, altitude sickness, decompression sickness, and barotrauma, and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations in the U.S. mandate that the cabin altitude may not exceed this at the maximum operating altitude of the aircraft under normal operating conditions.”

    I’ve used two different types of POC’s successfully, but it may be that your needs are greater than any POC can provide? What liter rate do you need normally?

    Karen

  10. Philip says:

    I am oxygen dependent as well and took an airplane flight from Ohio to California and back. One thing that is important here is that most of these portable oxygen concentrators do not work well above 15000 feet. My sats dropped significantly and hovered in the very low 80′s throughout the round trips. Most commercial flights fly above altitudes of 30,000 feet where these concentrators are less effective. If I had to do it over again I would most definitely take one for my ground activities but while flying I would pay the extra charge for E-cylinders through the airline. That’s the only way I would be guaranteed that I was getting a sufficient O2% to maintain my O2 saturation levels. After the experience I had I would never depend on one of these portable units to fulfill my O2 needs while flying.

    • marzybark says:

      as of July 23,2012 american airlines does not provide tank gas in flight for purchase. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) requires that oxygen on airplanes be dispensed from approved containers available through the airline only, so you may not use your own personal units. American does not provide medical oxygen inflight. If you require oxygen at the airport before departure, during your connection or at your destination, you will need to make separate arrangements.

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