Doctors will screen overweight pilots and air traffic controllers for sleep apnea because of the “significant safety implications” the condition poses, the FAA’s top medical official said.
Pilots with a body mass index (BMI) of 40 or higher will need to be evaluated by a board-certified sleep specialist, and those who suffer from obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) will require treatment before being certified to fly, Dr. Fred Tilton, the Federal Air Surgeon, wrote in the office’s quarterly medical bulletin.
Sleep apnea reduces restorative sleep and can cause excessive sleepiness during the day, high blood pressure, personality disturbances, and sudden cardiac death, Tilton said. All those conditions contribute to risks during flight. A BMI of 30 or more is considered obese.
A spokesman for the Air Line Pilots Association, the nation’s biggest pilots union, said the group is reviewing the FAA proposal and has no position on it yet, as did a spokeswoman for the union that represents 6,300 pilots at Southwest Airlines.
The policy will also expand to include lower body mass indices and eventually obese air traffic controllers. “Once we have appropriately dealt with every airman examinee who has a BMI of 40 or greater, we will gradually expand the testing pool by going to lower BMI measurements until we have identified and assured treatment for every airman with OSA,” Tilton wrote earlier this month.
The FAA has not announced when the screenings will begin. “We have purposely moved slowly because we wanted to give everyone an opportunity to learn about some of the issues before we added major changes to the medical certification process,” Tilton said.