Flying in an aeroplane is the equivalent to being 5000 to 6000 feet up a mountain. Think of a mountain twice as high as Ben Nevis, or being a third of the way up Everest. The air is ‘thinner’ because the pressure is less and, as a result, there is less oxygen. In fact, the concentration of oxygen falls from 21% at sea level, to about 15%. Most people will tolerate this, but, if you already have problems breathing, this will become worse.
For those respiratory patients who do not normally need oxygen: Patients who can walk 100 metres on the flat without needing oxygen, and at a steady pace without feeling short of breath, are very unlikely to have a problem in-flight. These patients are considered safe to fly according to the guidelines issued by the Civil Aviation Authority. If you can not do this, you should talk to your doctor about the safety of travelling by air. They will be able to carry out studies where they simulate the oxygen concentration in the aeroplane cabin. You will be sitting comfortably wearing a close fitting mask that delivers oxygen at a reduced concentration of 15% They will see what happens to your oxygen saturations over a period of time. They can then recommend whether or not you need oxygen during the flight. Short haul flights are less hazardous than longer ones.
For those respiratory patients that already need oxygen: Talk to your doctor about how much oxygen you will need in-flight. This may be a higher flow rate than you normally use. You must also remember to arrange oxygen to be available at your holiday destination. Your local respiratory nurse will be able to offer you advice on this.
If you are travelling in Europe, you might want to check this list of oxygen providers from The European Lung Foundation.
For all those patients that need oxygen on the flight: Remember to let the airline and/or travel agent know in good time, ideally a month before you fly. Some, but not all airlines, charge for the oxygen and it might be worth planning your flight with an airline that does not charge. Do not rely on the airline having oxygen available at the last minute; the oxygen the airlines carry is for emergencies and would not last very long.
Final checklist once oxygen is sorted … don’t forget:
Check your insurance policy covers you for medical costs and return home. Asthma and Lung UK has tips on getting travel insurance for patients with lung diseases.
Bring your EHIC [European Health Insurance Card] if it’s not expired or your GHIC [Global Health Insurance Card]. Click here for more information.
Arrange disabled assistance at the airport if required.
A letter in your hand luggage detailing your condition and medications.
Medication in your hand luggage plus one spare week’s worth.