Irwin resident Steven Hayne has never traveled west of the Mississippi River.
Now the only thing that stands between him and a vacation in Arizona is air — $600 worth.
Two years ago, Hayne was diagnosed with a rare and incurable respiratory disease, which renders him dependent on oxygen. So a dear friend, Kathleen Fabian, decided to surprise him, his wife and young daughter with round-trip tickets to visit her in Phoenix for Easter.
But Fabian discovered US Airways would charge $600 to supply Hayne with the necessary oxygen tanks. When added to the cost of the transcontinental flight, the oxygen charge makes Fabian’s good deed too expensive for her.
“This is something I never dreamed would be an issue,” Fabian said. “Does US Airways mean if any of us ever needed oxygen, we wouldn’t be able to fly anywhere?”
Federal Aviation Administration regulations state that, for safety reasons, passengers cannot bring their own oxygen tanks but must acquire them from the airline. Hayne needs eight tanks to fly to Phoenix and back.
US Airways spokesman David Castelveter acknowledged that other airlines’ charges for oxygen are sometimes lower.
“However, it would be cost-prohibitive for us to allow a customer to use as many canisters as he or she needs for a flat rate,” he said.
Airlines usually charge about $75 per leg of a trip, said Cathy Wyant, a respiratory supervisor in the Crafton office of Apria Healthcare, Hayne’s regular oxygen supplier. “Six hundred dollars is insane.”
Fabian, a registered nurse, said hospitals generally refill a patient’s oxygen tank for about $12. That contrasts with US Airways’ charge of $75 per tank.
Fabian met Hayne after befriending his wife-to-be, Eileen, when the two women attended Shadyside Hospital School of Nursing about 25 years ago. She heard Hayne’s pneumonia-like illness finally was diagnosed as anti-synthetase syndrome two years ago.
“There’s no cure for this,” said Hayne, a once-active driver for UPS.
“I don’t have the natural oxygen reserve that most people do. So when I exert myself at all, I start gasping for breath,” explained Hayne, apologizing for a pause during a telephone conversation.
“It’s OK for him to fly, as long as oxygen is available,” said Hayne’s rheumatologist, Dr. Neil Braunstein, of Westmoreland Regional Hospital in Greensburg.
The disease stems from an inflammation of the lungs, which leads to weakness of lung muscles’ ability to draw air, Braunstein said. While not fatal, the disease requires patients to use oxygen, or they subject themselves to lethal complications.
“We can’t charge for oxygen and lose money on it,” said Castelveter, the airline spokesman. “From a cost standpoint, we have to break even.”
Either the break-even for US Airways, which is operating in bankruptcy, must be much higher than other airlines, or competitors are selling below cost.
Northwest Airlines charges $100 per flight segment to supply a passenger with carry-on oxygen, said spokeswoman Mary Beth Schubert. So, the airline’s one-stop flight to and from Phoenix — four segments in all — would involve $400 for oxygen.
United Airlines charges $75 per segment for oxygen, said spokeswoman Chris Nardella. That means oxygen on its one-stop Pittsburgh-Phoenix trip would cost $300.
But Fabian would rather not subject Hayne to the hassle of changing planes and oxygen tanks on each leg of the trip. And US Airways, which controls nearly 90 percent of the passenger traffic out of Pittsburgh International Airport, has the only nonstop service to Phoenix, other than recent service by America West, which is based there.
When Fabian objected to hearing US Airways’ oxygen charges three weeks ago, the carrier’s consumer affairs employee told Fabian she was “free to fly on a competitor,” she said.
“For Pittsburgh’s hometown airline to turn away these passengers … is just absurd,” Fabian said.