The FAA’s federal air surgeon announced the new rule yesterday. It could apply to about 125,000 of the country’s 600,000 commercial and private pilots, reports CNN, and an unknown number of air traffic controllers out of the 14,500 in the country.
The requirement says that any pilots and controllers with a body mass index of 40 or greater and a neck circumference of 17 inches, as discerned during routine medical examinations, would have to get tested for obstructive sleep apnea.
To put that in real life terms, a 5’11” man who weighs 287 pounds would have a BMI of 40, says the National Institutes of Health. Sleep apnea can cause fatigue and is almost universal in people who fit those criteria, writes Dr. Fred Tilton, the federal air surgeon, in a statement announcing the new policy.
If a pilot turns out to have a sleep disorder, he or she will have to get treatment for it before getting a medical clearance to fly.
Once all of those pilots have been dealt with, the FAA says it will also look at those with lower BMIs “until we have identified and assured treatment for every airman” with sleep apnea, Tilton wrote.
The nation’s largest association of commercial pilots hasn’t weighed in on the policy yet, but a group representing private pilots is asking the FAA to wait a bit before it implements the policy, noting that just because there are sleepy pilots don’t mean those pilots have sleep apnea.
“This policy seems to be based on one incident involving an airline flight,” Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association Vice President Rob Hackman said in a prepared statement. “Analysis of a decade of fatal general aviation accidents by the General Aviation Joint Steering Committee didn’t identify obstructive sleep apnea as a contributing or causal factor in any of the accidents studied.”
There have been numerous incidents of pilots falling asleep on the job, where afterward the pilots said they were overly tired and fatigued. One involved two pilots on a Go! Airlines flight where both pilots fell asleep and overshot their destination by 26 miles. In that case the captain was later diagnosed with severe obstructive sleep apnea.
It’s also happened in Britain, when both pilots on the plane fell asleep, but in that case both had only had five hours of sleep before starting that flight.
Air traffic controllers have also gotten sleepy on the job, including one air traffic controller fired in 2011 for taking an intentional nap and two others who didn’t mean to do so.
The FAA says this new rule is in line with a National Transportation Safety Board recommendation and is “designed to help airmen and aviation safety by improving the diagnosis of unrecognized or untreated obstructive sleep apnea.”