COPD and Air Travel

Armen Hareyan's picture

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)

Patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease need to plan ahead for air travel

Air travel can reduce oxygen in the blood to critically low levels for people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and other respiratory diseases. Careful planning well in advance of departure can help patients have a safe, and comfortable flight.

Most commercial airplanes fly around 35,000 feet above sea level, where the air is too thin for anyone to survive. Hence, cabins are pressurized to the equivalent of about 6,000 to 8,000 feet above sea level. Even at that pressure, however, a given volume of air contains only 75% of the oxygen that it does at sea level. This isn't a problem for healthy people. But for COPD and other respiratory patients, it can cause a frightening and, possibly, dangerous lack of oxygen.

"Even COPD patients who don't use oxygen during their normal daily activities may need supplemental oxygen during airplane flights," says Ron Balkissoon , M.D., a pulmonologist at National Jewish Medical and Research Center. "COPD patients need to check with their doctors about their need for supplemental oxygen during air travel, and with their airline to make arrangements."


How do I determine if I will need oxygen on a plane? COPD patients who rely on supplemental oxygen to get through a normal day will definitely need oxygen on a plane and may need to turn it up one to two liters for the duration of the flight. Even if you have respiratory problems but don't normally use supplemental oxygen, you may need to when you fly. A simple test at your doctor's office can help you decide if you need oxygen on the plane.

How will my doctor know whether or not I will need oxygen? An oximeter, attached to your finger or earlobe, can determine how much oxygen your blood is carrying. Most people at sea level have a saturation level of about 96%, which means their blood is carrying 96% of its normal capacity. According to Dr. Balkissoon, people who suffer from COPD and have a saturation level of 89% or less, at rest or while walking a normal pace, are at a significant risk of their oxygen levels dropping dangerously low while in flight. They must have supplemental oxygen on a plane.

What sort of arrangements do I need to make before my flight? While most major airlines do allow you to carry oxygen on board, some do not. Make sure the airline you are flying does allow you to carry oxygen on board. Phone the airline or check its Web site to find out.

Because of security concerns airlines do not allow you to carry your own oxygen onto a plane. You must use oxygen supplied by the airline, although you may transport your own oxygen tank as a checked piece of luggage. You will be charged an additional fee to use the airline's oxygen tank.

Airlines also require certification from your doctor that you need oxygen for your flight. That can range from a signed certificate obtained from the airline to a phone call from the airline to your physician. Check with the airline to learn what is required.

If you take the necessary steps mentioned above, you will be able to insure that any air travel you do is as enjoyable and as hassle-free as possible. If you have COPD or another respiratory illness, don't let it hold you back from traveling the world. Get in touch with your doctor and airline, make the necessary arrangements, and enjoy a comfortable flight to your desired destination.