Safety vs compassion: Should cancer patients be denied airline seats?
Reports of a late-stage cancer patient denied boarding access at Chengdu Tianfu International Airport in southwestern China has prompted public discussion about the compassion of airlines.
A video, posted online on September 12, showed an elderly man in a wheelchair at the boarding gate of flight EU2205. His family said the man had been diagnosed with cancer four months ago. He had signed a declaration, undergone a medical examination and brought a doctor's note as well as a caregiver, but was ultimately refused permission to board.
In the video, the man was shown asking, "Why won't you let me board?"
A Chengdu Airlines staff member explained that the carrier has clear rules against transporting late-stage cancer patients, while early or mid-stage cancer patients can fly without restrictions.
This incident sparked online controversy. Some netizens accused Chengdu Airlines of lacking empathy, noting that such a blanket refusal is unwarranted as the number of cancer patients increases. Cancer patients often resort to air travel, rather than, say, trains, because the trips are shorter.
Other netizens sided with the airline, arguing that flying people with advanced disease may pose potential risks. They said high-speed trains might be more suitable because they would allow for easier access to immediate medical assistance if an emergency arose.
It is true that late-stage cancer patients could experience sudden health emergencies in the air.
In 2015, a late-stage cancer patient on a China Southern Airlines domestic flight suddenly began vomiting blood. The flight had to make an emergency landing at Guangzhou Baiyun Airport.
This situation poses a dilemma for airlines caught between compassion and reasonable risks.
Passengers experiencing medical problems midflight can result in high costs if a plane is forced to divert and land elsewhere. There are additional fuel costs and landing charges.
Airlines also worry that any inappropriate treatment on board could lead to claims for damages and hurt a carrier's reputation.
At the same time, blanket restriction might not be appropriate because cancer types and patient conditions vary widely. Strict limitations might also lead to patients hiding their conditions, creating more problems for airlines.
One doctor explained that the ability of a cancer patient to fly depends on physical condition. If a cancer patient is in relatively good health, there should be no problem, he said.
However, if cancer patients have reached the late stages, with symptoms like anemia and weight loss, flying is generally not recommended. High-altitude air travel can lead to discomfort, such as difficulty in breathing and headaches.
Other domestic airlines, in an effort to balance safety with service, have similar rules in place to manage passengers with advanced medical conditions.
Shanghai-based China Eastern Airlines said it would refuse to transport patients with exceptionally large tumors, but cancer patients who wish to fly may submit a medical certificate for the carrier to evaluate.
China Southern said if cancer patients are in good physical condition, can walk normally and complete the boarding pass and security check process, they can board even without a doctor's certificate.
Air China, the nation's flagship carrier, stipulates that cancer patients must provide a medical certificate issued by a medical institution within 10 days before boarding.
Airline industry regulations are somewhat ambiguous on the issue.
According to the Regulations on the Administration of Passenger Services in the Public Air Transport published by the Ministry of Transport of China in 2021, the general conditions of transport shall at least include transport standards for special passengers, such as infants, pregnant women, unaccompanied children and critically ill patients.
However, the regulations also state that airlines can establish their own transportation standards, and there is no specific regulation dictating those standards.
The "domestic transportation of passengers and luggage" policy of Chengdu Airlines states that, except for special arrangements agreed by the airlines, no transportation will be allowed for advanced cancer patients.
Purchasing passenger medical insurance can cover losses incurred by airlines due to medical emergencies, though such insurance comes at a high cost for passengers.
Some experts argue that a one-size-fits-all rule ignores the individual circumstances of chronically ill passengers. They suggest airlines should consult with medical institutions for guidance and create more detailed regulations for cancer patients.
In the end, it is not a bad thing that the incident in Chengdu has sparked wide debate. It may help clarify airline policy awareness among the public and push carriers to give closer attention to their policies.