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Sleep Apnea and Flying - A Summary of the Situation

by Ray Robinson 27. November 2013 10:47
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In a recent FAA newsletter, Federal Air Surgeon Dr. Frederick Tilton reported the FAA “will be releasing shortly” a policy requiring that pilots with a body mass index (BMI) of 40 or greater, and a neck size of 17 inches or greater, undergo screening for sleep apnea prior to receiving a medical certificate. Tilton’s newsletter commentary adds that, over time, additional pilots would be required to submit to OSA screening, as the agency lowers the BMI threshold.

Here’s a link to the newsletter:

AOPA and EAA reacted to the announced policy with strongly worded letters “demanding” that it be suspended. They argued that the policy addresses a problem that exceeds the Federal Flight Surgeon’s mandate, could add a financial burden to the pilot community, and hasn’t been proven to exist. AOPA Thursday expressed its support for the House’s legislation and added some choice words. AOPA president Mark Baker said, “The policy change is arbitrary and capricious and doesn’t make sense given the data.” AOPA says that a review of ten years of general aviation accident data “found no cases in which sleep apnea was a causal or contributing factor.”

Less than a week ago, U.S. House of Representatives aviation subcommittee chairman Frank LoBiondo (R-2 NJ) introduced H.R. 3578 – legislation that would compel the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) “to ensure that any new or revised requirement providing for the screening, testing, or treatment of an airman or an air traffic controller for a sleep disorder is adopted pursuant to a rulemaking proceeding, and for other purposes.” “We thank Representative LoBiondo and other House lawmakers for recognizing that a policy of this magnitude must be vetted through the established rulemaking process, which has proven to be effective so many times in the past,” NBAA President and CEO Ed Bolen said. “It is imperative that any new burden on aviators, in this case pilots, be thoroughly analyzed in consultation with stakeholders.” LoBiondo’s measure has been referred to the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.

Where do you stand on this? If you suffer from sleep apnea, does it impact your performance as a pilot?

UPDATE 12-5-13: The NBAA welcomes the House Committee passage of H.R. 3578 here.

UPDATE 12-9-13: Advanced Aircrew Academy has an excellent blog posting regarding obtaining the special issuance of an FAA Medical with sleep apnea here.

UPDATE 12-10-13: The Civil Aviation Medical Association (CAMA), the professional organization for Aviation Medical Examiners who provide medical certification exams to the nation's pilots, has joined the consensus against the FAA's new sleep apnea policy announced last month. More information on the EAA's website here.

UPDATE 12-11-13: Reps. Todd Rokita (R-IN) and Sam Graves (R-MO) introduced a bill in the U.S. House today that seeks to abolish the third-class medical certificate for many pilots who fly recreationally. The General Aviation Pilot Protection Act of 2013, co-sponsored by Reps. Bill Flores (R-TX), Mike Pompeo (R-KS), Collin Peterson (D-MN), and Richard Hanna (R-NY), would require pilots who fly recreationally to hold a valid driver's license in lieu of a third-class medical certificate and operate under specific limitations.

UPDATE 12-13-13: During a Dec. 12 webinar presentation to discuss the agency's controversial new OSA-screening proposal with industry stakeholders, Federal Air Surgeon Dr. Frederick Tilton appeared determined to push ahead with the requirements. “If Congress passes a law [forcing industry consultation], we’ll be compliant with it,” Tilton said during the webinar. “Until they do so, we will move forward with this.” For more on this new development, plus the NBAA's reaction, she their press release here.

UPDATE 12-20-13: The FAA will delay implementation of its new sleep apnea policy planned for next month in order to gather additional input from the aviation and medical community. For more information, as well as the EAA's reaction, click here.

UPDATE 3-6-14: The National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) joined a coalition of aviation groups this week in calling for swift passage of U.S. Senate legislation aimed at bringing transparency to any decision by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to implement mandatory testing of pilots and air traffic controllers for obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) before receiving a medical certificate.

"As aviation community stakeholders, we are writing to express our support for S.1941, commonsense bipartisan legislation to address the sweeping [FAA] proposal to change the policy on sleep apnea for pilots and air traffic controllers without the benefit of a rulemaking process," reads the March 4 letter to senators. "Further, we wish to express our collective hope that passing this important bill in a timely fashion will be a priority for the U.S. Senate in the coming weeks." Read the coalition's letter in its entirety here.

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