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Pilots with a high body mass index will need to be screened for sleep apnea before they are given medical certification to fly, the FAA announced.
Plus-size pilots are getting a wake-up call from the Federal Aviation Administration, in the form of a new policy that would bar those with sleep apnea from flying.
The airway-obstructing sleep disorder interferes with rest and could make pilots too drowsy on the job, FAA air surgeon Dr. Fred Tilton explained in a recent bulletin, adding that more details on the policy will be forthcoming.
Obstructive sleep apnea “is almost universal in obese individuals who have a body mass index over 40 and a neck circumference of 17 inches or more,” Tilton, the agency’s chief doctor, wrote in an editorial.
As part of the new policy, all pilots with a BMI of 40 or above will need to get screened by a board certified sleep specialist. If they do have sleep apnea, they will need to be treated before they can receive medical certification to fly.
The BMI threshhold will gradually be lowered so that more are screened, Tilton wrote. The policy also affects air traffic control personnel.
The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association spoke out against the new rule, saying that it “provides no clear safety benefit” and “imposes unjustified costs” on pilots, who might have to pay for pricey sleep lab sessions.
Obstructive sleep apnea occurs when the airway closes during sleep, causing breathing to stop for seconds or up to minutes. This can happen multiple times per hour, disrupting sleep and leaving sufferers feeling groggy or irritable the next day. Having sleep apnea is also linked to a higher risk of high blood pressure, heart attack and stroke, among other conditions.
More than 18 million Americans have sleep apnea, according to the National Sleep Foundation, and though the condition is more common in overweight people, a person does not have to be overweight to suffer from it.