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Managing passengers with respiratory disease planning air travel: British Thoracic Society recommendations
  1. British Thoracic Society Standards of Care Committee
  1. Air Travel Working Party: Dr R K Coker (chair), Dr D A R Boldy, Dr R Buchdahl, Mr D Cramer, Professor D Denison, Wing Commander D P Gradwell, Professor J M B Hughes, Dr J A Innes, Dr A O C Johnson, Dr K P McKinlay, Dr M R Partridge
  1. Correspondence to:
    Dr R Coker, Department of Respiratory Medicine, Hammersmith Hospital, Du Cane Road, London W12 0HS, UK;

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Need for recommendations on managing passengers with lung disease planning air travel

Air travel is now a common mode of travel for millions, with a single UK airline carrying over 33 million passengers annually. It is estimated that over one billion passengers travel by air worldwide each year, and for the majority this is without hazard.

Despite current uncertainties about the future of the airline industry, it seems likely that air travel will continue to offer a convenient form of transport for many. In the longer term passenger numbers may therefore increase further. Given the rising age of western populations, the age of air travellers is also likely to increase, with greater propensity for medical impairment. Over 25 years ago it was already estimated that 5% of commercial airline passengers were ambulatory patients with some illness including chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).1

There are still no established methods for quantifying the risk of in-flight medical problems. However, a North American service offering expert assistance by radio link for in-flight medical emergencies logged 8500 calls in 2000, of which 11% were respiratory in nature.2 Physicians should therefore be aware of the potential effects of the flight environment in passengers with lung disease. One million residents of Denver, Colorado live at 5280 ft (1609 m) and coaches crossing high Alpine passes reach 10 000 ft (3048 m), indicating that moderate hypoxaemia is not generally hazardous. Nevertheless, greater awareness of the risks of air travel will enable physicians to encourage patients to fly safely wherever possible and increase the safety of fellow air passengers.

The aircraft crew are subject to regular medical examination but passengers are not. For potential passengers with lung disease it would clearly be valuable for their physician to have recommendations for assessing the fitness of their patients for flying. A recent national survey of respiratory physicians indicated that many …

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