Air travel with a lung condition

This information is for people with a lung condition who wish to travel by plane, and their families and carers. It provides advice and tips about flying, including travelling by plane with oxygen, and includes the contact details of a number of UK airports.

Remember: always check with your doctor or health care professional before you travel to make sure you are fit to fly.

  1. Why does air travel affect people with lung conditions?
  2. Why does the lower pressure in aircraft cabins affect people with lung conditions?
  3. How do I know if I might have difficulty travelling by air?
  4. Can I get help to reach the airplane?
  5. Can I use oxygen to help me when travelling by air?
  6. Does the length of the flight make a difference?
  7. What happens if I get a chest infection while on holiday?
  8. Am I covered by medical insurance for any delays or difficulties due to my lung condition while on my trip?
  9. What else should I remember before flying?
  10. Further information
  11. Airport contact details

Why does air travel affect people with lung conditions?

A small number of people with lung conditions may have difficulties travelling by air. This is because of the reduced air pressure in aircraft cabins.

People who have had infectious tuberculosis (TB) must not travel by air until their doctor says they are not infectious.

Anyone who has had a collapsed lung (pneumothorax) must not travel by air until their doctor tells them it is safe to do so.

Why does the lower pressure in aircraft cabins affect people with lung conditions?

Air pressure in aircraft cabins is lower than air pressure at ground level. Being in an airplane is like being 6,000 to 8,000 feet up a mountain.

At high altitudes, blood oxygen levels fall in everyone, leaving some people feeling breathless. In most people this has no effect on their health.

But if you already have low blood oxygen levels because of a lung condition, the extra dip that happens while you are in the plane can make breathlessness worse still, causing discomfort.

How do I know if I might have difficulty travelling by air?

As a guide, if you can walk 100 metres without needing oxygen, at a steady pace and without feeling breathless or needing to stop, it is unlikely you will be troubled by the reduced pressure in aircraft cabins.

However, there are several issues to take into account in deciding whether you are able to fly.

Therefore you will need to talk to your doctor or health care professional about whether you should travel by air and if you might need additional oxygen for the flight.

You may need some breathing tests to determine whether you are fit to travel. These will show if a fall in your blood oxygen level is likely to be a problem for you when flying.

You should also visit your doctor before travelling if:

  • you have had health problems when flying in the past;
  • you have been in hospital recently with a lung or heart problem; or
  • you have ever suffered from a clot in your leg, veins or lungs.

Can I get help to reach the airplane?

Yes. UK airports are required by law to help people with reduced mobility from the airport entrance to the departure gate.

This law applies to all flights leaving from, transferring through, or arriving in any European Union (EU) country, including Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland. This right only applies to flights outside Europe when the airline is owned by a European company.

You should tell your booking agent, tour operator or airline about your needs at least 48 hours before you travel. You may be given a lift on a motorised cart or loaned a motorised wheelchair or other mobility aid. Arrive at the airport at least two hours before your departure time.

Look for the ‘special assistance’ section on airports’ websites for details about what kind of help is on offer. Contact details for the main airports can be found at the bottom of this page.

You must also let your airline know if you require help to board the plane. Airlines can refuse assistance or refuse to honour your reservation if you do not give them at least 48 hours’ notice.

Can I use oxygen to help me when travelling by air?

Yes. Even if tests show that your usual blood oxygen levels are so low that air travel may be a problem for you, it doesn’t necessarily mean you won’t be able to fly.

It’s possible you will still be able to travel by air, if you take oxygen with you or if it’s provided for you.

Some airlines allow passengers to carry their own cylinders and some arrange extra oxygen, but remember that most will charge. Different airlines have different charges, so you should check with each one before you arrange your flight.

See the section ‘Airline oxygen policies’, which outlines the steps you need to take for the main airlines that fly into and out of the UK, along with their contact details.

Making arrangements for your oxygen supply

Arrangements for oxygen supply on board an aircraft must be made with your airline.

Some may allow you to carry a small oxygen cylinder on board; others may provide their own for a small fee. It is important to check a particular airline’s policy before booking your ticket.

If an airline agrees to let you take your own oxygen supply on board it is worth getting this agreement in writing.

There may be some practical issues to consider when taking your own oxygen onto a plane. It may be difficult to find a supplier of oxygen cylinders; the cylinders supplied may not be suitable for taking on board a plane; and you will need to bring back to the UK any cylinders you take with you.

One solution would be to consider hiring a portable oxygen concentrator (POC), but some airlines have restrictions about what devices are permitted for use on board.

Others may require you to fill in a form before travelling. You should always check with the airline before booking your flight to discuss your requirements.

You may need oxygen on the ground when changing flights. This is because some airports are at high altitudes. Airlines do not provide oxygen for use at airports.

Try to get a direct flight to your destination where possible. Don’t assume that planes will have oxygen on board. They carry emergency supplies but not enough for several hours. Remember to check with your airline.

You need permission from airlines to take on board and use any electrical equipment and medical devices that you might need during the flight.

This includes nebulisers and continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machines, used to treat the condition obstructive sleep apnoea. Any equipment must be battery operated and you will not be allowed to use it during take-off or landing.

You should also check whether any airports you are travelling through have rules about electrical equipment.

For some people with a lung condition, using an inhaler with a spacer (a device that allows more medication to get into the lungs) can be as effective as using a nebuliser, so travelling with a spacer instead might be feasible.

This is not the case for everyone, so speak to your doctor or health care professional when planning your trip.

Does the length of the flight make a difference?

Longer flights can carry health risks for anyone, because of the effects of sitting for long periods without much exercise.

There is no evidence of extra risk for people with a lung condition, except for people with lung cancer who are more at risk of deep vein thrombosis (clots in the veins). You should speak to your doctor before you travel if you have any concerns.


What happens if I get a chest infection while on holiday?

Any chest infection should be completely treated before you fly home, and you should have medical approval before flying home.

Am I covered by medical insurance for any delays or difficulties due to my lung condition while on my trip?

You may not be. Check your travel insurance policy, and make sure you are fully covered for any medical costs that arise in connection with your lung condition.

It is important that your travel insurance includes the cost of return by air ambulance if you were to become too ill to return on a commercial flight. Some policies exclude costs arising due to pre-existing health conditions.

Many will not cover you for costs arising due to your lung condition unless you have a written note from your doctor that he or she feels you are fit to fly.

Remember – it is very important to have comprehensive travel insurance in place before you travel. Read the section on ‘Travel insurance’ for more information.

What else should I remember before flying?

  • Ask your doctor well in advance for a letter to take in your hand luggage with details of your condition, your medication and any metal implants that have been put in your body as part of your treatment. Such devices may include metal coils inserted into your blood vessels.
  • Be sure to take your inhalers and any other medication you may need in your carry-on bags. 
  • If you get breathless when walking, make sure you arrange for help at the airport. The distance between the check-in lounge and the departure gates can be long. Disabled assistance at airports should be arranged at least 48 hours before you travel.
  • When you are on the plane try to move about every hour or so and exercise your legs. Sitting for too long in one position can lead to blood clots in the legs.
  • Drink plenty of water and non-alcoholic drinks during the flight.
  • Remember the golden rule: if you are in any doubt about travelling, check with your doctor or health care professional before you arrange your holiday and flights.

Further information

For people who travel often, the Frequent Traveller’s Medical Card (FREMEC) contains important medical information about your care, replacing forms otherwise necessary for every flight.

Once you have registered, the reservations office has your travel requirements on record so that special assistance can be arranged when you fly. The length of time the card is valid for depends on the nature of your symptoms.

FREMEC is issued by many airlines but if you fly with an airline other than the one that issued your FREMEC card, you should check with the new airline that it is valid.

The Civil Aviation Authority’s Aviation Health Unit (AHU) is a source of up-to-date information on and advice about health issues and flying. You can contact the AHU on 01293 573674 or by emailing ahu@caa.co.uk.

Airport contact details

For information about all airports, including contact details for special assistance and medical enquiries, visit www.airport-guides.net.

  • Birmingham -0121 767 7878
  • Heathrow - 0844 355 1801
  • Bristol - 0871 334 4344
  • Liverpool John Lennon - 0871 521 8484
  • Edinburgh - 0131 344 3486
  • Luton - 01582 405 100
  • Gatwick - 0844 892 0322, option 2
  • Manchester - 08712 710 711
  • Glasgow - 0141 842 7568
  • Stansted - 0844 335 1803

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Code: IS1
Last reviewed: May 2012
Due for review: May 2014

Download: Air travel with a lung condition information Sheet – IS1