Air travel and medical oxygen – Interview with Geert De Maere
Geert De Maere talks to ELF about accompanying his daughter, who required medical oxygen, on a flight, and the difficulties he experienced when trying to make arrangements with the airline.
Please can you tell us a little bit about yourself
I’m an academic working in the field of operational research, and specifically with airlines and airports - my work helps to reduce air pollution from planes, for example by minimizing fuel burn through improved airport operations.
This meant I had an advantage when I started talking to airlines about flying with my daughter while she was oxygen dependent. I’ve worked in the industry for the past 16 years so I have an understanding of how it works and what the different organisations are.
Can you tell us about your experience of travelling by plane whilst your daughter was oxygen dependent?
My daughter was only on medical oxygen for seven months, and it was challenging. I booked a flight on a certain airline after checking that we could take her oxygen cylinder on board with us. But I made a mistake that was easy to make - I looked at the transport regulations of oxygen which allowed us to transport the cylinder inside the cabin, but they didn’t say we could actually use it on board the aircraft.
I contacted the airline 2 or 3 weeks before we travelled to confirm arrangements. That’s when it became clear to me that we weren’t allowed to use our own cylinders on board the aircraft. They wanted to charge us (at the time) 350 euros for a single flight going from Heathrow to Vienna (2.5 hours). Her own cylinder would have cost around 70 euros and lasted for 14.7 hours, more than enough to cover outgoing and return flights.
In the end we had to hire a portable oxygen concentrator (POC), for which we paid 300 pounds to hire it for two weeks.
What is so frustrating is that many airlines ignore European regulations, which clearly state that what they charge for special assistance should be proportionate to the actual cost, and that they are not allowed to make profit out of providing assistance for people with disabilities. So I started questioning them and sending them citations of these regulations.
The level of communication from the airline was incredibly frustrating. As a parent of a child with a disability, things are more challenging anyway, and additional fights like these just don’t help matters.
Do you have any advice for people who plan to fly with medical oxygen for the first time and their family members or carers?
I would suggest that people contact the airline well in advance. Some airlines say to contact 2 weeks in advance, but I would say don’t leave it that late. You’re much better contacting them at least 4 weeks in advance, especially if it’s your first time flying with medical oxygen.
I also think the solution is often person-dependent. For some people a concentrator works well, and these are usually allowed, but for some people, including those that need a continuous flow of oxygen, that is not an appropriate solution.
What do you think airlines need to do to improve access to air travel for people who need to use medical oxygen?
Being supportive would already be a step in the right direction!
We were told by the airline we were flying with that we weren’t even allowed to use any power sockets on the plane for the concentrator, but being able to power the concentrator during the flight would be very helpful in case of delays.
They should also make sure that people in special assistance departments are properly trained and have a good understanding of different conditions.
And finally, if they're not willing to provide oxygen free of charge then the cost should be sensible and justifiable.
If you are planning to travel with medical oxygen, ELF has some resources that can help you. Our Airline Index allows you to see and compare oxygen policies from different airlines. You can also find out more about taking a fit-to-fly test, requirements for medical certificates and planning for oxygen equipment at your destination.