WASHINGTON Nov 20 Overweight U.S. pilots and
air traffic controllers will soon need to be screened for sleep
apnea, a condition that can cause daytime sleepiness and
potentially jeopardize passenger safety, according to a new
The Federal Aviation Administration's chief medical officer
told physicians in a recent memo that they will shortly be
required to calculate the body mass index (BMI) of pilots and
controllers and send those with a BMI of 40 or more to be
evaluated by a sleep specialist.
Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is a potentially serious
disorder in which a person's breathing repeatedly stops and
starts during sleep. It commonly affects people who are
The FAA said the condition has "significant safety
implications," from excessive daytime sleepiness to personality
disturbances, cognitive impairment and sudden cardiac death.
"Untreated obstructive sleep apnea is a disqualifying
condition for airmen and air traffic control specialists," Dr.
Fred Tilton, the Federal Air Surgeon, said in the memo to
aviation medical examiners.
While the condition has been frequently discussed at flying
safety meetings, and has been a "hot issue" at the National
Transportation Safety Board for several years, the new policy
will require airmen and controllers who are diagnosed with OSA
to be treated before they can be medically certificated, Tilton
The condition is "almost universal" in individuals with a
body mass index over 40 and a neck circumference of 17 inches or
more, Tilton said, though it also affects up to 30 percent of
people with a BMI of less than 30.
A body mass index of 40 equates roughly to a 5'10"
individual weighing 280 pounds, according to the National
Institutes of Health. A BMI of 30 or greater is considered
Tilton said that examiners should also be on alert for other
sleep-related disorders, from insomnia to restless leg syndrome.
After the first round of tests, the agency will gradually
expand its program to examine individuals with lower BMIs,
Tilton said. The FAA has not announced a starting date for its
new policy. The plan would be rolled out first to pilots and
then to controllers.
"Remember," Tilton wrote, "you, as aviation medical
examiners, are our front line, and your daily interaction with
pilots and controllers has an enormous impact on the safety of
the national airspace."
(Reporting by Ros Krasny; Editing by Chris Reese)