Sleep Care

Pilots May Get Grounded Over Sleep Apnea

Overweight pilots and air traffic controllers will soon be required to undergo sleep apnea screening according to a newly announced policy from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). If diagnosed with the condition, which can cause daytime sleepiness and potentially jeopardize passenger safety, pilots will be required to undergo treatment before receiving their medical certificate. According to CNN, this new policy could affect as many as 125,000 commercial and private pilots. Airplane landingTo determine who gets tested first, the FAA’s chief medical officer says that pilots’ and controllers’ body mass index (BMI) will be calculated. If the person has a BMI of 40 or more, a sleep specialist will then evaluate them to determine if they have sleep apnea. BMI is a ratio of height over weight. Typically, obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is found in individuals with a BMI over 40 and a neck circumference of 17 inches. But, anyone with a BMI of 30 or greater is considered obese. To date, the FAA has not announced a starting date for this new policy, which will be rolled out first for pilots and then for controllers. After the first round of tests though, the agency will gradually expand its program to include individuals with lower BMIs. The development of this policy was motivated by the concern that OSA is a potentially serious disorder in which a person’s breathing repeatedly stops and starts during sleep. In fact, a person with OSA may stop and start breathing as many as 40 to 50 times an hour. As a result, there are significant safety implications that result from such interrupted sleep including excessive daytime sleepiness, cognitive impairment and even cardiac arrest. For instance, sleep apnea can cause those affected to wake up tired or feeling un-refreshed. They also may experience sleepiness during the day and may be more

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likely to fall asleep at work. People with sleep apnea often report feeling sleepy while driving, being forgetful, having headaches and acting impatient or irritable. Untreated sleep apnea also may increase the risk of high blood pressure, diabetes, heart issues and even stroke. And if not treated all of this could impact a pilot’s ability to fly a plane safely. In fact, pilot fatigue has been a factor in several air safety incidents. For example, ABC News reported

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that this decision comes after a high-profile accident in which two pilots aboard a Go Airlines flight between islands in Hawaii fell asleep and overshot the airport. Although the flight eventually landed without any additional incidents, the National Transportation Safety Board launched an investigation. They later concluded that the captain was obese and had sleep apnea. Still other experts caution that this new policy doesn’t address the entire issue. Sleep specialists point out that pilots also are more likely to work variable shift schedules, which also may make it difficult for anyone to get a sufficient night’s sleep. Even pilots who only fly at night can be affected by sleep issues. In these cases, the body’s natural circadian rhythms are being interrupted. Simply screening for sleep apnea does not address other sleep-related problems that pilots may be experiencing.