Into thin air with an oxygen tank
I read in the papers that the airlines, bowing to public pressure, are about to allow passengers to use their cell phones during flights and, while I’m no more enthusiastic about sitting next to a cell phone yakker thanI am to a yanging child, it’s a free country (so they say). What I want is the freedom to take my little Helios oxygen tank on board.The airlines are medieval in their understanding about oxygen and as more baby boomers find themselves oxygen-dependent they will bring their own pressure to change the rules, but change will probably be a long time coming.It doesn’t have to be that way. Poof, they got rid of the smokers. Poof, suddenly we didn’t have to give straight-faced responses to the litany of questions like, “Did you pack your own bags?” Poof, cell phones, which we were told would interfere with vital radio transmissions between earth and sky, are OK. Poof, taking your own oxygen on the plane could no longer be considered tantamount to carrying sticks of dynamite on board with a packet of matches in your pocket.The 1996 ValuJet crash probably set oxygen progress back a couple of decades. A spark in the hold set off a cargo of misidentified (marked empty when they were full), unsecured (considered off when they were on) oxygen tanks and exploded all 110 occupants into the Florida Everglades, a tragic event that instantly gave oxygen a nasty reputation.As the situation now stands, passengers cannot bring their own oxygen supply on board, and only selected flights supply it for you, at a cost of at least $100 per leg. We can’t get oxygen at all on flights between Aspen and Denver, a tiring four-hour drive, and if we could get it, it would cost and extra $400 for a round-trip ticket from Aspen to any points from DIA.All of these rules were set in stone before the invention of Helios, a lightweight, long-lasting liquid oxygen tank that you can carry on your hip or in a backpack. It used to be that you never saw many people romping around on oxygen – that was because the available tanks were so cumbersome to drag around and lasted such a short time that it was preferable to stay at home or shoot yourself rather than try to deal with it. I know that because I dragged for more than two years and hated every minute of it, and then Helios came on the scene: 2 1/2 pounds, lasting for eight hours. With my Helios tank, I could hop on Aspen Scareways, be in Denver in 25 minutes, and then take it on my United flight to Newark to visit my 98-year-old mother, but no.You don’t have to be dying to need oxygen – some of us just can’t go as high up the mountain as the rest of you, so we need a little oxygen boost, but the airline personnel don’t look on it so casually. One time on United I was presented with a cannula (the nasal prong bridle) so short that it was a virtual noose, but when I told the attendant I had a 7-foot cannula in my purse that would work just fine, she leapt back as if I had suggested pulling a python out of my bag, crying, “You have to use our equipment!” I mean, really – get a grip.Coming back from my last trip to New Jersey, I presented myself at the gate and, not for the first time, discovered that United had neglected to put their sacred oxygen tank in my overhead bin. Pandemonium. I was accidentally flying first class (upgrading was the only way to use my miles) and one of the ladies at the gate grabbed the microphone and announced, and then repeated at two-minute intervals, “First class passengers will not be able to pre-board because we’re installing oxygen – thank you for your patience.” As if placing their (sacred) tank of oxygen was any bigger a deal than the grand pianos and Shetland ponies that passengers regularly stuff into the overhead bins, holding up the lines. It’s not. And if we could just take our Helios tanks on board, there wouldn’t be any problem at all.Meanwhile, we’re in the dark ages and it will probably take a class-action suit under the disabilities act to educate the airlines and their personnel about oxygen. And then, poof – I hope in my lifetime – oxygen will be suddenly be OK, just like cell phones.Su Lum is a longtime local who can’t wait. Her column appears every Wednesday in The Aspen Times.