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FAA Sleep Apnea Policy Would Set a Dangerous Precedent

EAA urges suspension of policy

November 19, 2013 - EAA is joining other general aviation organizations urging an immediate and indefinite hold on the FAA's just-announced aeromedical guidelines on sleep apnea.

The protocol, announced by Federal Air Surgeon Dr. Fred Tilton, would initially require all applicants with a body mass index (BMI) of 40 or greater and a neck size of 17 inches or greater to be evaluated by a sleep specialist prior to receiving a medical certificate. Those who are diagnosed with obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) would need to be treated prior to issuance. Dr. Tilton noted that OSA is "almost universal" among this group.

"The FAA has not presented nor have we seen any evidence of aeronautical hazards or threats based on sleep apnea in general aviation," said Sean Elliott, EAA's vice president of advocacy and safety. "To enter into the realm of predictive medicine based on no safety threat or symptoms - at a significant cost to individual aviators and the GA community - is not only a reach beyond FAA's mission but a serious hurdle to those who enjoy recreational aviation. The FAA's special issuance process would also be overwhelmed by this unneeded policy, creating even further delays and bureaucracy."

Elliott also notes that while this newly announced FAA policy is clearly unjustified, a greater threat looms in subsequent plans outlined by Dr. Tilton, that "once we have appropriately dealt with every airman examinee who has a BMI of 40 or greater, we will gradually expand the testing pool by going to lower BMI measurements until we have identified and assured treatment for every airman with OSA."

The Pilot's Bill of Rights passed by Congress and signed by the president in 2012 required that the FAA thoroughly evaluate the medical certification process and supply medical science and justification to support its policies. Any sleep apnea requirements or policy should also meet this requirement. To date, the FAA has not undertaken such an evaluation.

"We are joining in the call for an immediate suspension of this policy and thorough review of its need and justification," Elliott said. "There has been no evidence of sleep apnea as a cause or factor in more than a decade of general aviation accidents reviewed by FAA's own General Aviation Joint Steering Committee, in which EAA participated."

The new policy grew out of a 2009 NTSB recommendation that the FAA change the airman medical application to include questions about any previous diagnosis of obstructive sleep apnea as well as the presence of risk factors for the disorder. The recommendation also asked the FAA to implement a program to require pilots at high risk for obstructive sleep apnea to be evaluated and, if needed, treated before being granted medical certification.

EAA, in consultation with the Aeromedical Advisory Council composed of aviation medical examiners, will be sending specific recommendations to the FAA in the days ahead. EAA is also carrying opposition to lawmakers on Capitol Hill who have already called for a review and evaluation of the aeromedical process under the Pilot's Bill of Rights.

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