Imagine traveling by air – spending several hundred dollars on your ticket, then being required to pay an additional fee of $100.00 on each leg of your flight to use something provided by the airline, by mandate – something you already own! Until now, this is what people using oxygen have faced when they fly. But things are about to change.
Here’s a little background for some of you who might be unfamiliar with oxygen and air travel. For some time now, oxygen users have had home oxygen concentrators, machines that take the air around us (about 21% oxygen) and concentrate it to make pure oxygen.
These machines are usually fairly large (about the size of an end table), very heavy, and create a lot of heat. But, they are workhorses, running 24-hours a day, making an endless supply of oxygen for use at home – a pretty good idea. When a person needing supplemental (and we say "supplemental" because we all need oxygen – some people just need a little more) oxygen is out and about, they must use a portable device that provides ready-to-use oxygen either from a pressurized canister or other device converting the oxygen from liquid form. Until recently, these portable devices (owned or rented by the user) have not been allowed on planes, often grounding the oxygen-dependent air traveler who is unable, or unwilling, to pay the extra fee for airline-provided oxygen. Recently, new technology has brought us what you might say is the best of both worlds; a lightweight, (under 10 pounds) much smaller (about the size of a coffee maker), and more portable (on wheels, just like rolling luggage) form of supplemental oxygen. So, you might think, “Problem solved. People can use their own portable battery-run oxygen units in flight.” Unfortunately, something so simple, isn’t.
Some progress was made in 2005 when the FAA (Federal Aviation Authority) ruled that airlines could allow these new portable concentrators to be brought onto a plane for all phases of flight, including take off and landing. However, note that this rule allowed, but did not require, airlines to permit passengers to travel with these devices. So, some supplemental oxygen users benefited, while others were shut out according to the whims of individual airlines. This 2005 policy was a step in the right direction, but travelers with oxygen will tell you that it didn’t go far enough.
Now, here’s the good news. On May 7, 2008,tThe US Department of Transportation (DOT) amended its Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) rule to apply to foreign carriers, saying that airlines must accept portable oxygen concentrators carried aboard by passengers, as long as those concentrators are approved by the DOT.
The new rule will apply to foreign air carriers operating a flight that begins or ends in the United States, and applies to U.S. air carrier operations worldwide. Passengers flying to Europe, Asia, or other destinations on foreign air carriers will have similar protections against discriminatory policies and be entitled to the same accommodations as passengers flying on U.S. carriers. DOT will also be better able to take enforcement action against a foreign carrier if it discriminates against an individual because of his or her disability on flights to or from the United States. The five portable oxygen concentrators approved for passengers to carry aboard aircraft are: AirSep FreeStyle, AirSep LifeStyle, Inogen One, Respironics EverGo and Sequal Eclipse. In addition to making air travel more accessible for oxygen users, this new rule will also provide greater accommodations for passengers with hearing impairments, requiring airlines to include easy-to-read captions for the hearing-impaired in its safety and informational videos. Airlines also must promptly provide the same information to hearing- and vision-impaired passengers that it provides to other passengers in airport terminals or on the aircraft – such as information on boarding, flight delays, schedule changes, weather conditions at the flight’s destination, connecting gate assignments, checking and claiming of baggage, and emergencies. The rule does not specify how carriers should make this information available to passengers who are deaf or hard of hearing. The DOT will seek further comment in a supplemental notice of proposed rulemaking (SNPRM) and will also address subjects such as accessibility of airline web sites, automated ticketing kiosks, and in flight entertainment systems.
The Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA), enacted by Congress in 1986, prohibits airlines from discriminating against disabled passengers. The DOT issued its first ACAA regulations in 1990 and has amended the rules several times since then. The new rule will be effective in one year to give carriers enough time to begin implementation of these provisions. A public hearing on the new ruling is scheduled in Washington June 3. The text of the final rule is available at www.regulations.gov, docket number DOT-OST-2004-19482.