Sleep Apnea in the Aviation Industry

The sleep disorder known as sleep apnea has safety implications in the transportation industry. People who suffer from sleep apnea suffer from interruptions in their breathing during sleep. These interruptions can occur frequently throughout the night, causing a victim to experience significant fatigue even after a normal-length sleep period. In addition to drowsiness, victims may suffer from headaches, difficulty concentrating, irritability, depression, forgetfulness and other side effects. The impact of sleep apnea on pilots, truck drivers and others in terms of safety is difficult to pinpoint.

The Federal Aviation Administration is scheduled to release new medical guidance to Aviation Medical Examiners regarding pilots who may be suffering from sleep apnea. A pilot diagnosed with untreated obstructive sleep apnea, one of two varieties of the condition, has been and will continue to be disqualified from FAA approval. The new guidelines concern what screening approach medical examiners should take in identifying and treating the condition to allow pilots to manage the condition and fly safely. 

The new position will mark a difference in what triggers an evaluation for sleep apnea. In the past, a pilot’s body mass index (BMI) alone had the power to trigger disqualification or an evaluation. BMI will no longer be a sole determinant. Instead, a pilot’s history, symptoms and other clinical findings will be used to determine the potential for obstructive sleep apnea.

The issue of guidance versus rule-making regarding sleep apnea was a matter of contention when the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration considered the matter for truck drivers. The FMCSA was forbidden from issuing guidance in the absence of a formal rule. Whether lawmakers will take a similar approach with the FAA remains to be seen. The FAA Guide for Aviation Medical Examiners containing the new suggested approach is scheduled to be released on March 2, 2015.

Source: Federal Aviation Administration, “Fact Sheet – Sleep Apnea in Aviation,” 23 January 2015 

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