Federal aviation regulators are launching a new screening program to week out pilots with sleep apnea, a condition that they noted is "nearly universal" in adults with a body mass index of 40 or higher.
The FAA plans to ground any pilots diagnosed with OSA until they are successfully treated, as determined by a board-certified sleep specialist, according to a memo from the agency.
The new policy has attracted a fair amount of controversy, especially among pilots represented by the Experimental Aircraft Assn., which warned that the rule "would set a dangerous precedent."
"The FAA has not presented nor have we seen any evidence of aeronautical hazards or threats based on sleep apnea in general aviation," EAA vice president of advocacy & safety Sean Elliott said in prepared remarks. "To enter into the realm of predictive medicine based on no safety threat or symptoms – at a significant cost to individual aviators and the GA community – is not only a reach beyond FAA’s mission but a serious hurdle to those who enjoy recreational aviation. The FAA’s special issuance process would also be overwhelmed by this unneeded policy, creating even further delays and bureaucracy."
FAA regulators plan to release their new guidelines soon, according to an editorial in the Federal Air Surgeon’s Medical Bulletin. The agency plans to begin screening with pilots and to eventually expand to include air traffic controllers.
"OSA inhibits restorative sleep, and it has significant safety implications because it can cause excessive daytime sleepiness, cognitive impairment, cardiac dysrhythmias, sudden cardiac death, personality disturbances, and hypertension, to cite just a few," FAA Federal Air Surgeon Fred Tilton wrote. "Untreated OSA is a disqualifying condition for airmen and air traffic control specialists (ATCSs), and it is a concern for the other modes of the Department of Transportation. It has also been a hot issue at the National Transportation Safety Board for several years."