Airline charges disabled boy pounds 200 for oxygen

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The Independent Online
Airlines are charging passengers with respiratory problems up to pounds 200 for providing additional oxygen - sometimes more than the cost of their ticket.

British Airways, Britannia Airways, Qantas and TWA are among companies applying heavy charges to passengers with conditions that can affect breathing, such as cystic fibrosis and sickle cell anaemia, according to a report by Holiday Which? to be published next month.

However, the report adds that several airlines, including Virgin Atlantic and British Midland, do not charge for oxygen.

The practice came to light after the parents of an 11-year-old boy with cystic fibrosis were told they would have to pay pounds 200 for Britannia Airways to provide him with oxygen for a return trip from London to Majorca.

Cystic fibrosis, which affects more than 6,500 children and adults in the United Kingdom, causes a thick mucus to clog the lungs and stomach, making it difficult to breathe and digest food. Inhaling pure oxygen makes breathing more comfortable. In the case of Britannia Airways, the parents of James Macanaspie contacted the airline after he had had hospital treatment before their holiday.

Julia and Frank Macanaspie, of Tilbury, Essex, booked their two-week holiday last September. "At the time James was quite well but his health suddenly deteriorated a few weeks before the trip," said Mrs Macanaspie. "He spent three weeks in Great Ormond Street Hospital in London and was only discharged the day before we flew. When we first contacted Britannia they insisted they had to charge us pounds 200. We were shocked because we assumed airlines carried oxygen. My husband kept phoning them and they reduced it to pounds 100."

After the Macanaspies's plight was reported on local television, Britannia Airlines waived the charge, she said.

"It had become an extremely distressing time for us. The doctors had told us that it could be James's last chance for a family holiday and we did not need this additional worry. We're pleased they relented but they clearly only did so because of local television reports. It is disgraceful trying to make a profit out of a sick child. I don't think we will fly with them again."

James, who has to use a wheelchair, required an oxygen mask throughout the two-hour trip to Majorca and for an hour on the return flight last Thursday.

Kelly Radley, spokeswoman for Britannia Airlines, said the company regretted causing distress. "We charge pounds 100 for a return flight - they were mistakenly told pounds 200. Because of this error we decided to waive the charge.

"But we do not intend to alter our policy - we are getting more and more people requesting oxygen and we have to cover some of the increasing cost. Each bottle of oxygen costs pounds 500."

Ian Thorn, spokesman for the Cystic Fibrosis Trust, said: "It is very mean indeed to charge passengers who need oxygen. We don't see why some airlines feel they must charge when others do not."

A British Airways spokesman said the company had no plans to review its charges. "It costs us pounds 130 to buy the purest oxygen possible and we charge a flat pounds 100 rate for a flight to Dublin or Sydney," he said. "We are not profiteering or being mean. We carry oxygen for emergencies and anybody who collapses is not charged for its use."

But the policy is pricing disabled people out of flying, according to Patricia Yates, of Holiday Which?. "We have one complaint of a wheelchair passenger who flew to Belfast with BA on a pounds 76 ticket but was charged pounds 200 for using oxygen. We have had several complaints from black people with sickle cell anaemia who are also charged for oxygen."

Sarah Able, spokeswoman for British Midland, which does not charge for oxygen, said: "Oxygen is very cheap. There is a lot of costly back-up work involved but it's something we feel we can meet."