Overweight U.S. pilots and air-traffic controllers will soon need to be screened for sleep apnea, a condition that could potentially jeopardize passenger safety, according to a new federal policy announced Wednesday.
Federal Aviation Administration chief surgeon Fred Tilton issued the major change in policy after concerns that overweight pilots or controllers could be prone to falling asleep on the job.
"Untreated obstructive sleep apnea is a disqualifying condition for airmen and air traffic control specialists," Tilton wrote in a memo to aviation medical examiners.
"Remember you, as aviation medical examiners, are our front line, and your daily interaction with pilots and controllers has an enormous impact on the safety of the national airspace."
A pilot or controller with a body mass index, or BMI, of 40 and a neck circumference of 17 inches or more would be required to undergo an obstructive sleep apnea test, which determines whether a person's breathing repeatedly stops and starts while asleep, a condition that commonly affects overweight people.
The FAA said the condition has "significant safety implications," from excessive daytime sleepiness to personality disturbances, cognitive impairment, and sudden cardiac death.
Other sleep-related disorders can be insomnia and restless leg syndrome.
Those diagnosed with OSA would be treated before being certified to fly.
The Air Line Pilots Association said it is reviewing the policy.
But Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association Vice President Rob Hackman said in a prepared statement, "This policy seems to be based on one incident involving an airline flight."
"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," Hackman said.
In February 2008, two pilots on a Go! Airlines flight from Honolulu to Hilo, Hawaii, fell asleep and missed their airport landing
by 26 miles. The captain was subsequently diagnosed with severe obstructive sleep apnea.
Fatigue was also a factor in the February 2009 crash of Colgan Air Flight 3407
, which crashed near Buffalo, N.Y., killing 50 people.
There has also been a series of incidents with air-traffic controllers involving fatigue. In 2011, the FAA fired at least three controllers for sleeping
on the job.
The National Air Traffic Controllers Association on Wednesday declined to comment on the new policy.
Reuters contributed to this report.
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