Back in 2013 the FAA announced news of a new policy ordering medical exams for flight traffic controllers and pilots with a body mass index (or BMI) of more than 40 to be assessed by medical sleep specialists to conclusively determine if they have obstructive sleep apnea.
A Heated Controversy
The assumption here by the FAA is that if pilots and traffic controllers have a BMI of 40 or above, they would almost certainly suffer from sleep apnea. Whether or not this is actually the case, the logic presented here by the FAA is that sleep apnea sufferers also endure reflex and awareness loss due to lack of restful sleep, which can endanger the people they are flying or the pilots they are directing.
This of course has lighted up a controversy and for multiple different reasons, has set all sides into a frenzy. However, the underlying issue here is safety so the question has to be asked, is there any evidence of sleep apnea being a direct cause or even a mitigating factor in any aviation accidents in the last decade or so?
The EAA Vice President of Advocacy and Safety, Sean Elliot, says no. Elliot stated recently, “There has been no evidence of sleep apnea as a cause or a factor in more than a decade of general aviation accidents reviewed by the FAA’s own General Aviation Joint Steering Committee in which the EAA participated.”
More Trouble than It’s Worth?
To be fair to both sides, the FAA isn’t banning pilots with sleep apnea from flying period, they are just demanding that pilots and air traffic controllers first get treatment before flying or performing their jobs.
While this seems to some to be a drastic measure, the intention isn’t to witch-hunt heavyset pilots, but in the end, to ensure safety by narrowing down the causes of accidents and then addressing them. Apparently due to public outcry, this stance may not be taken by the FAA and a new solution, one possibly more compromising, is being sought.
Another question arises here as well, why just pilots and air traffic controllers? What about bus drivers, cab drivers or any other public servant or transportation specialist? And if we’re going to single them out, why not every single driver on the road?
When looked at objectively from both sides it’s doubtful that any real solution will please both sides equally. But one thing is certain, the debate at the very least sheds more light on sleep apnea and greatly increases public awareness, if nothing else. This debate could spark a much wider range of publication and thereby prompt more people into seeking sleep apnea treatment.