Air Travel On Supplemental Oxygen: Life On a Leash and Timer

What’s it like traveling on supplemental oxygen? While it varies for everyone, for me it sucks being on a leash and a timer.

Before the pandemic I flew frequently and to went to a few high elevations cities, like Denver (5,279 feet above sea level) and Salt Lake City (4,226 feet). I needed to use me oxygen 24/7 while there.

After three years of not traveling I am not in the shape I was, and out of shape in carrying my portable oxygen concentrator (POC). My oxygen needs have increased so these days I’m using a tank at the gym so I can get 5 liters per minute (lpm) at continuous flow. The POC I’ve been using for years only goes as high as 1 lpm and only does intermittent flow (IF) (also called pulse).

I have already flown three times this year, twice, unfortunately, for funerals. Those were both on Southwest, which is the only national airline I’ve flown in years. Until last week.

I flew to Scottsdale, Arizona this past Thursday through Sunday out of Regan National Airport on American Airlines. It was my first time flying American with a portable oxygen concentrator.

I was flying as part of a group and my ticket was purchased for me. I called American ahead of time to see what they required and to let them know I had the POC. I also wanted to ask about pre-boarding. Southwest lets people on oxygen pre-board. They also require you sit by a window so you’re not a tripping hazard to the others in your row.

When I mentioned this to the person at American she said she didn’t know why people thought POCs had to be by a window. She said it was a full flight but she was able to move me one row back (at the very back of the plane) to be by the window.

My POCs 1 lpm means I can’t really exert myself, which is hard to not do when carrying the 7 pound unit and luggage, even if you’re rolling it. The double battery lasts less than 4 hours when on the highest setting. The exact time varies depending on how heavy I’m breathing.

You can’t fly with an oxygen tank, and only FAA approved POCs are allowed on the plane.

There are 2 options for going through security with a POC. For option 1 you can take it off and put it through the X-ray machine along with your other luggage. This though means you’re going to be without it for at least 5 minutes if not more. This is because even though it’s gone through the x-ray machine the POC is pulled out for further testing.

For option 2 you keep it on, but you’re now going through a pat down and they do the extra tests on the machine while you’re wearing it. If you go with this option it usually takes a few minutes for them to get an agent to pat you down. In the meantime, your belongings that went through the x-ray are now on the other side and, if you’re traveling alone, are sitting there unattended. Once an agent comes to pat you down they grab your stuff for you. I’ve had it take a while though for an agent. You’re not allowed to touch it because you haven’t been cleared yet. If you’re traveling with someone though, they can grab your stuff because they have been cleared.

I went through option 2 both ways.

When I got to the gate I asked about pre-boarding. They said I needed to be on their list. I was told I was and that this would convey to the trip home too. I was told they called individual names when it was time to pre-board.

We never heard my name. I thought maybe with American they boarded certain members first. After half the plane had loaded though we finally went up and an annoyed American employee, the same one who told me I would be called by name, scanned my ticket. I proceed to walk towards the back of the plane, in the small space, carrying my bags. I had to take it slowly since this was strenuous. My oxygen tubing also managed to get caught on a few arm rests as I was struggling down the aisle.

Scottsdale is at an elevation of 2,165 feet. Where I live is at sea level. While my oxygen levels stayed in the low 90’s while sitting, any time I was standing and walking around I needed my POC. I had to walk slowly so as to not over exert myself. I really needed 3-4 liters to walk my normal pace at that altitude.

It also didn’t help that my lungs have been suffering (more bronchospastic) due to denial of my normal medications by my new insurance company (that’ll be another blog).

I managed on the trip. I was hoping to do my first in person race, a 5K, since the  pandemic started. I realized though I just couldn’t do it at that altitude with the oxygen supply I had.

I did manage to do 4 miles at the hotel gym on the treadmill. I plugged in my POC to keep it charged up, and hung it off the treadmill arm so I wasn’t carrying it. I also kept my pace at 2.5 miles per hour.

We were dropped off Sunday 4 hours before the flight, which would be about 4 hours long. I needed the double battery for the flight, so I put in a single battery first. I forgot to lower from the highest setting once I got on the bus and now my first battery was dead.

I put in the double battery to get me through security and hoped I could charge the battery at the gate.

This time though, to help limit my exertion, Ed pushed me in a wheelchair. I sat and waited for the agent to pat me down. Ed went through and got our stuff. Once I was cleared he rolled me to the gate. It was extremely crowded and we ended up sitting a few gates away which was less crowded and where I could plug in my POC.

Our gate did clear out and we moved close to the door where there was an outlet. I was mostly chained to my seat recharging the empty battery. At least my POC will charge and dispense oxygen simultaneously.

When it was time to board Ed suggested I get back in the wheelchair. One of the gate attendants came over and got me first. They scanned my ticket and said I wasn’t on the pre-board list. Seriously? How many people do I need to ask? It seems like they take have a deaf air unless you’re in a wheelchair.

My fully charged double battery lasted the trip home. My lungs were happy to be at sea level again.

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