Industry groups are hoping to ratchet up the pressure on to hold off on its plan to mandate that pilots with a body mass index of 40 or more undergo testing for obstructive sleep apnea (OSA).
Both the Experimental Aircraft Association and its Aeromedical Advisory Council sent letters urging FAA Administrator Michael Huerta to hold off on the policy, saying opposition is growing from both the pilot and medical communities.
The letters followed a similar appeal made by Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association President and CEO Mark Baker, who wrote to Huerta that “I am deeply troubled by the manner in which the Federal Air Surgeon is proceeding, and call upon you to put a stop to it so that all concerned parties can have input in determining how to most effectively address concerns regarding sleep disorders.”
The letters are among a number that have now been sent to both FAA and Congress on the issue. But the most recent round follows a Dec. 12 webinar during which Federal Air Surgeon Fred Tilton maintained that the requirement is a process enhancement that does not need to go through the rulemaking process. FAA indicated plans to soon issue guidance to aviation medical examiners and implement the policy. Affected pilots who do not undergo the requisite testing within 60 days could face losing their medical certification, AOPA fears.
“EAA is deeply concerned that despite strong opposition from the pilot and aerospace medical communities, FAA continues to forge ahead with its proposed policy on OSA,” EAA Chairman Jack Pelton says in a letter to Tilton. Given the numerous concerns raised by a number of stakeholders, “the only appropriate action is to delay their implementation pending a formal rulemaking process,” he says, adding, “By now it should be clear that this policy is flawed.”
Pelton points to concerns of the Civil Aviation Medical Association (CAMA) that the proposed new mandate would burden a “critically taxed” medical certification system.
Members of the Aeromedical Advisory Council say they also worry that the stated intent is to expand the policy beyond those with aof 40 or greater. The current threshold would capture 5,000 pilots, but an expansion could cover well more than 100,000 pilots, according to some association estimates. “OSA identification in pilot applicants would require a monumental screening effort. OSA screening would be a huge logistic effort,” the Aeromedical Advisory Council says.
The council also questioned the suggestions that pilots could avoid the heftier cost of a full screening by using a home screening kit, followed by sleep specialist consultation. While this would lower the cost to around $600, the council noted an American Academy of Sleep Medicine task force concluded that portable, unattended, out-of-center (home) monitoring was not appropriate for general screening of asymptomatic populations.
“We believe that a coordinated, multilateral educational initiative, widely supported by FAA, aviation medical organizations, pilot organizations and others would reach greater numbers, be more persuasive and enhance safety of the national airspace to a far greater extent than the proposed policy,” the council says.
FAA maintains that the new directive is not a change in medical standards, but is “pursuing a new approach ... Anyone diagnosed with OSA must be treated before they can be medically certificated, which is not new.” The agency also citesdata that shows 34 accidents, including 32 fatal accidents, involved pilots who had sleep apnea. However, sleep apnea was not listed as the cause of those accidents.
EAA has established a webpage encouraging its members to write to Congress in opposition, and more than 650 had been sent so far. A bill to require a formal rulemaking for mandatory OSA pilot testing is pending before the House. Congress previously had adopted a bill calling for similar rulemaking for the trucking industry.