What I’ve learned about traveling by plane with supplemental oxygen

A columnist details one of the in-flight challenges she faces as a sickle cell patient

Mary Shaniqua avatar

by Mary Shaniqua |

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I’ve shared some of the hurdles I face when traveling abroad as someone with sickle cell disease. I now have something else to add to the list.

I recently returned home to the U.K. after a three-week trip to Jamaica. Not only was it my first long-haul flight, but it was also my first time using a portable oxygen concentrator.

Not all sickle cell patients require additional oxygen when traveling abroad, but I developed the need a few years ago. In December 2018, I suffered a pulmonary embolism, essentially a blood clot in my lung. Perhaps I’ll share that experience in greater detail in a future column. For now, just know that it means I must take blood-thinning medication for life and am more susceptible to blood clots going forward.

Then, in May 2019, I took a short flight from London to Glasgow, Scotland, and suffered one of my worst sickle cell crises to date. It began almost as soon as we reached cruising altitude, and upon landing, I was immediately taken to the intensive care unit at a local hospital, where I spent about two weeks. Doctors determined that the reduced oxygen at the higher altitude had triggered my crisis.

Both of these experiences mean I now need additional oxygen when flying. When a patient requires this, there may be two options, depending on the airline: oxygen cylinders or a portable oxygen concentrator (POC). I haven’t traveled much since the aforementioned incidents, but I’ve had the chance to use both options in flight.

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Oxygen cylinders

This is exactly what it sounds like — a portable cylinder that’s filled with oxygen. Cylinders are great in that they provide a constant flow of oxygen and tend to be very user-friendly. Patients also have the choice between an oxygen mask, which goes over the mouth and nose, or a nasal cannula. You simply attach whichever instrument you decide to use to the cylinder, select how many liters of oxygen are required, and you’re all set.

There are some disadvantages, though. Oxygen cylinders are heavy and bulky and hold a finite amount of oxygen. Additionally, most airlines don’t allow passengers to bring their own oxygen cylinder on board, though some will allow empty cylinders as checked baggage. Some airlines may supply oxygen during the flight, especially on long trips, but others require passengers to use a POC.

Portable oxygen concentrator

A POC filters and concentrates the surrounding air to generate medical-grade oxygen. The biggest advantage of using a POC is that the amount of oxygen available to the patient is not finite or limited to what can fit into a compressed tank. Also, as a single device, it’s not as bulky to transport.

Another benefit is that most POCs can provide oxygen via pulse mode delivery, meaning they only deliver oxygen every time you inhale, rather than in a steady stream. This can help to mitigate the risk of overdosing on oxygen.

However, there are also some disadvantages. POCs are often battery-powered, so it’s crucial to ensure you have enough battery power for your entire trip. Second, I’ve found that POCs aren’t as easy to use as cylinders, especially when you have to factor in changing the batteries.

My experience

Unfortunately, both cylinders and the POC draw attention. This isn’t ideal if, like me, you don’t like being the center of attention due to anything medical-related. Apart from that, I’m grateful to have these options so that I don’t have to miss out on travel opportunities because of sickle cell complications.

I do think airlines need to improve the approval process for traveling with this equipment, as all of the airlines I’ve used to date have made it extremely stressful. But that’s a topic for another day.

Do you travel with any special medical equipment? Please share your experience in the comments.

Note: Sickle Cell Disease News is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Sickle Cell Disease News or its parent company, BioNews, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to sickle cell disease.


Elaine Norris-Mulligan avatar

Elaine Norris-Mulligan

In 2015, I experienced an event on descending from 35,000 feet in an aircraft. There was terrible pain in my head and the pain continued even after taking the prescribed pain medication.
In 2017, I needed to fly again. Based on my previous experience, I decided to use a POC. That made a huge difference using supplemental oxygen while flying.
I agree that airlines should simplify the paperwork that goes with approval of the use of a POC. There should be a uniform method and not where paperwork is


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