Can You Fly with COPD? 10 Expert Tips for Your Next Flight
Air travel has become progressively more common nowadays. However, it would be nice if it is safe and comfortable for anyone with medical conditions, especially for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) passengers.
Flying can put people with severe respiratory and lung problems at high risk of life-threatening complications, which are made even worse if they cannot get sufficient oxygen therapy while they are up in the sky. Even healthy individuals sometimes need supplemental oxygen at high altitudes.
If you are an oxygen patient or know someone planning to air travel, this article can help both of you answer the question, “can you fly with COPD?” Read through to learn more!
Can You Fly With COPD?
Yes, you can get on a plane even if you have COPD. Instead of being homebound, people with lung diseases, such as COPD, can typically continue their daily routines with proper disease management. This includes playing sports, going out, and of course, traveling!
Medical technology developments have made COPD treatments more accommodating to physically active and mobile lifestyles. Most scientists and doctors agree that COPD patients can fly safely on a plane.
Commercial airlines and carriers have policies regarding onboard and in-flight oxygen to ensure the safety and comfort of at-risk patients. All you have to do is prepare the requirements before buying the tickets.
10 Tips for Flying With COPD
No one wants to be left unprepared in a medical emergency, especially at a high altitude. For people with chronic respiratory or lung diseases, air travel increases the risk of experiencing life-threatening complications. This can lead to a dire situation, especially if the appropriate oxygen therapy is not available on the flight.
To have an uncomplicated air trip, practice these ten tips for flying with COPD.
1. Consult your physician
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a medical term covering various respiratory or lung diseases, such as Chronic Bronchitis and Emphysema. Varying disease states and case severities means your flying experience can differ significantly from other COPD patients.
It is crucial for anyone with a medical condition to consult a doctor before planning the departure date. Your physician will advise you on what you need to bring, including plans for a suitable portable oxygen concentrator. No one can assist with your COPD needs better than them.
2. Contact the airline
It is essential to contact the airline for their specific rules and regulations for oxygen therapy patients. Some airlines request COPD patients bring extra batteries for their oxygen devices, enough to last at least 150% of flight duration.
Take note that some airlines do not allow large oxygen tanks. This is where you should collaborate with your physician to navigate such restrictions. They can advise you to bring a portable oxygen concentrator instead.
If you are a frequent air traveler with COPD, you may already be familiar with the inconsistency of regulations regarding flying with COPD. Confirm and understand the airline requirements days or weeks before your flight.
3. Know the FAA requirements
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has already established the criteria for the accepted POCs on board. You should be aware of specific FAA requirements, such as:
- Portable oxygen concentrators (POCs) must be legally marketed in the United States and backed by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
- The POC device must not emit radio frequencies that can interfere with the aircraft’s systems.
- The POC device must not generate compressed gas.
- The POC device must have the required POC labeling.
- The POC device must not include any unsafe materials.
Find the complete list of FAA-approved portable oxygen concentrators here.
4. Take necessary pre-flight assessments
One of the most common pre-flight health tests for COPD patients is the 6-minute walk test. It is one way to test how your lungs and heart respond to light activities at your usual pace for only six minutes. The outcomes might lead to additional testing or a treatment plan.
Another test is the hypoxic altitude simulation test (HAST), simply the hypoxic challenge test. This test lets physicians know whether their patients require supplemental oxygen to fly. Further, since the pressurized cabin reduces the oxygen level in the air to 15%, patients with lung conditions must have an extra oxygen supply for safe air travel.
5. Check oxygen saturation level
COPD passengers with an oxygen saturation greater than 95% at sea level are approved to fly without further tests. On the other hand, if your oxygen saturation is between 92% to 95%, you must have supplemental in-flight oxygen just in case.
6. Inspect your oxygen concentrator unit
Before booking the flight, ensure that your oxygen device works perfectly fine and that the flow rate is on the correct liter flow per minute. On top of that, add extra batteries for long-duration flights.
7. Make flight arrangements ahead of time
Call your chosen airline to verify and clarify all the necessary information on your flight. For extra measures, ensure all oxygen arrangements in advance and always arrive at the airport early.
8. Sit close to the comfort room
Take the plane seat near the lavatory. It’s not uncommon for COPD patients to lose bladder control, especially when experiencing shortness of breath. Always choose the best seat that can add to your flight convenience.
It is highly advisable for patients with oxygen concentrator devices to avoid sitting near exit rows, bulkhead rows or, in seats blocking aisle access.
9. Avoid alcohol while on a flight
Although it is generally alright for COPD patients to drink in moderation, alcohol consumption poses a risk of COPD-related complications flaring up during a flight..
10. Take direct flights whenever possible
It is beneficial for passengers with respiratory problems to take direct, non-stop flights. Aside from being cheaper, direct flights also decrease opportunities for flight-related complications. It also provides little to no hassle for all passengers, eliminating the need to wait for an extended period of time between flights.
What To Bring With You When Flying With COPD?
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) does not necessarily mean you have to give up exploring the outside world, on land or by air. However, unlike healthy passengers, you need extra time to plan everything for a fun, safe, healthy air trip!
Here’s a checklist of things you need to fly safely with COPD.
Always ensure you have all your medications refilled — enough to last your entire trip or more. Tell your pharmacy about the journey in case it is too early to acquire a refill. For additional convenience, keep all prescriptions in your carry-on bag.
2. Extra batteries
Bring extra batteries for your portable oxygen devices. After all, it is better to carry more rather than lack one.
Nowadays, most airports have many electrical outlets that allow passengers to charge between flights. For extra measures, bring your electric outlet extender.
3. Travel partner
Bring a travel partner along with you. They should know what you need for the ride and be ready to help you if something happens.
Additionally, your travel partner must understand everything about your medications, including the oxygen system to use, and be knowledgeable enough to adjust settings and change batteries.
4. List of important contact information
The list must contain your emergency family contact and your health care provider. On top of this, you should include the airline you are traveling with. You can keep this list on your phone or in your travel folder.
5. Emergency medical information card
This card must contain all information concerning your medications, including your medical devices, sensitivities and allergies, preferred therapy and treatment-medical providers, and vital contact persons. This tag can provide a quick response in case of an emergency.
Frequently Asked Questions
Does flying make COPD worse?
Air travels put patients with COPD at risk for a variety of disease-related complications. For example, there is an increased risk of significant hypoxemia and for arterial oxygen saturations to fall below critical limits.
However, with proper assessments and precautions, you should be able to fly safely. Make sure to visit your physician first before booking a flight.
Is it safe to fly on a plane with COPD?
Yes. You can have safe air travels with your doctor’s approval. Some airlines require a doctor’s clearance for verification purposes. This can help patients and airlines with the arrangements necessary for safe flights.
Also, airlines, in general, do not offer medical oxygen onboard. But they do allow COPD passengers to bring their portable oxygen concentrators.
Is COPD affected by altitude?
Yes. High altitudes can manifest COPD complications. Your body needs to work harder at a higher altitude, which places more strain on the lungs and makes breathing more difficult.
Additionally, increased ventilation from hypoxemia and irritation of the lower airways may exacerbate respiratory symptoms. COPD patients may experience hyperventilation, chest pain, air hunger, and lightheadedness during a flight.
Does your oxygen level drop when flying?
Yes. Traveling by plane involves decreases in air pressure and lower than average oxygen levels.
Sudden changes may only be noticeable for some passengers. In particular, small atmospheric fluxes can potentially harm those with underlying respiratory ailments.
Can you fly with moderate COPD?
Yes. Stage 2 or moderate COPD does not typically prevent you from traveling via air. You can travel safely and soundly even if you have breathing complications like asthma, but you must take the necessary precautions.
Travel by Plane Even With COPD
The question “can you fly with COPD” can undoubtedly be answered with a yes! Although air voyages put COPD patients at risk of adverse outcomes, your chosen airline and physician can quickly help you arrange a safe and comfortable flight.
Touring with oxygen is now made more manageable, all thanks to the development of portable oxygen concentrators. Aside from its lightweight feature, you do not have to refill them. Bring extra batteries to last your trip, and you are good to go!
- NHS. (n.d.). Hypoxic Challenge Test. NHS choices. Retrieved November 21, 2022, from https://www.cuh.nhs.uk/our-services/respiratory-medicine-lungs/lung-function-unit/hypoxic-challenge-test/
- Rodriguez, T. (2022, October 5). Traveling by airplane with COPD: Expert advice. Pulmonology Advisor. Retrieved November 21, 2022, from https://www.pulmonologyadvisor.com/home/topics/copd/traveling-by-airplane-with-copd-expert-advice/
- Johnson, A. O. C. (2003, August 1). Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease • 11: Fitness to fly with COPD. Thorax. Retrieved November 21, 2022, from https://thorax.bmj.com/content/58/8/729
Written by Andy Flynn
Andy Flynn is the founder of Sprylyfe, the leading retailer of portable oxygen concentrators in the United States. He also co-founded ARYA BioMed.
Get to know him on LinkedIn.
Medically Reviewed By Aaron Gravely, M.D.
Aaron L. Gravely, M.D. is a professional medical writer and physician-scientist with over 8 years of experience in healthcare and medical research.