Richard Hine, a blog reader living in NYC, asks this question: “Can my mother, who requires oxygen full-time, travel on an airplane?” I’m delighted to report that yes, she can!
Effective May 2009, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) requires all U.S. air carriers to allow passengers to bring DOT-approved portable oxygen concentrators (POCs) on board aircraft. Foreign carriers must also permit POCs, but only on flights departing from or returning to U.S. soil. Even with this rule in effect, however, if your parent requires oxygen do not just show up at the airport and expect to bring a POC onto the plane.
Although airlines must allow oxygen-assisted passengers to fly, each airline has its own policy for on-board oxygen transport (which can include limiting the number of oxygen-requiring passengers on the same plane). Therefore, before you book any flight, it’s critical that you contact the airline to verify that your parent can be accommodated and to determine the airline’s specific requirements.
What Devices Can You Bring?
The only approved oxygen device allowed on-board flights is a portable oxygen concentrator (POC), a smaller, lighter, and easier-to-carry variation of a home oxygen concentrator. No other personal oxygen systems can be used on board, and filled oxygen tanks (liquid or compressed gas) cannot be brought on board—or even checked as baggage—on any airline. Some airlines may allow empty oxygen equipment to be stowed in baggage, but it must be verified as empty, and the regulator must be removed. Check with your airline ahead of time to see if it allows empty tanks to be checked.
An airline’s website should list approved POCs. Two other USA-based organizations also list approved devices (and include lots of other helpful information about air travel with supplemental oxygen):
If your oxygen provider cannot provide you with a POC approved for air travel, you’ll need to rent or purchase one (the organizations above and the airlines typically provide recommendations). If you’re traveling with an approved POC, that status will need to be indicated on the POC itself.
Whether a POC counts toward your two-bag limit for carry-on items varies from airline to airline, so be sure to check your airline’s particular policy. Knowing how much carry-on space you have to work with is especially important if you need to bring with you other medical supplies, snacks, or entertainment options.
More than a Simple “Note from the Doctor”
Most (if not all) airlines require a written physician’s statement indicating that your parent requires oxygen and is “fit for travel,” and that his or her medical condition would not necessitate “extraordinary medical assistance” during a flight. Your airline may require you to submit a specific form or request a statement on your doctor’s letterhead, so definitely check on this (rather than assume that a note from the doctor will suffice). Most airlines require you to present this documentation two weeks or so before a flight, so don’t wait until the last-minute to ask about their requirements!
You’ll also need an official prescription indicating that oxygen is required (which must be carried on your person through security and on the flight), and a separate medical information form may or may not be required as well. If your airline requires any documentation from your doctor, be sure to get confirmation (preferably in writing) from the airline that it was received. This will help you avoid any issues at the airport. Just in case, though, when boarding your flight bring extra copies of all paperwork with you.
The FAA requires a POC to have 150% of the actual flight time in battery time, regardless of how long the user may choose to use the device. (For example, if your flying time is 3 hours, you will need 4.5 hours of battery power.) Even if you’re not planning to use the POC at all during the flight, that 150% battery life is still required! The appropriate number of batteries can be calculated based on the manufacturer’s estimate of the hours of battery life while the device is in use and information provided in the physician’s statement (e.g., flow rate for the POC). An airline carrier may deny boarding to a passenger who does not carry enough properly packed batteries to accommodate 150% of the flight time.
Plan to take longer than usual to get through airport security, because the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) will carefully inspect all your paperwork and equipment. If you are traveling with an approved POC, that will need to be identified on the POC itself. All TSA-approved oxygen tanks can be x-rayed, if required.
Rules for airlines outside the USA (i.e., for travel not originating from or returning to the USA) are less consistent regarding allowances for passengers traveling with oxygen. Thus in these cases it’s even more critical to check with the airline prior to booking a flight and to get any agreements and requirements in writing from the airline.
Although it can be a bit more challenging to book at the last-minute, travel with a parent who requires oxygen can be accomplished with advance planning. Just follow these four “simple” steps, and you’ll be off and running:
- Contact your parent’s oxygen supplier to find out if it has approved POC devices. If not, review the airline’s website or the two organizations recommended above for rental suppliers.
- Contact the airline to determine if your desired flight has availability for a passenger requiring oxygen and to find out their specific requirements for pre-authorization.
- Because getting final clearance from the airline can take two weeks (or longer!) once you’ve submitted all required paperwork, don’t delay in scheduling doctor’s appointments for medical clearances. If you do, you might miss the flight you’ve booked!
- Get everything in writing from the airline and the oxygen supplier to ensure you’ll have no hassles getting through security and boarding your flight.
You Can Do It!
Thanks for asking this question, Richard! I’m really glad you brought up this subject, because I’m sure it’s relevant to many of my readers. Planning for and undertaking any trip already involves some amount of anxiety—and when one of the travelers is dependent on supplemental oxygen, the anxiety level has the potential to go way up. But it doesn’t have to be that way! With a little extra research and planning, traveling with supplemental oxygen can be a piece of cake. Good luck and let me know how your trip goes!