In a recent newsletter for AMEs, Federal Air Surgeon Fred Tilton said he hoped his readers had a “really scary Halloween.” Nothing could be as scary as what he had to say next. In describing a new policy on obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) that will soon take effect, Tilton basically put pilots on notice that if you’re too fat you might lose your medical. There’s no other way to read this outrageous proposal.
Specifically, pilots who have a Body Mass Index (BMI) over 40 and a neck circumference of 17 inches or more will be required to undergo further testing with a sleep specialist–at their own expense. If they are found to have OSA, pilots will have to receive treatment before they can renew a medical certificate. Again, this would be paid for by pilots. AOPA estimates this could affect nearly 125,000 pilots–at a cost of $374 million.
Go ahead, calculate your BMI. If it’s over 40, you should be worried. But if you’re under 40, you can’t relax either. As if the basic proposal wasn’t scary enough, Tilton mentions that “we will gradually expand the testing pool by going to lower BMI measurements.” The FAA’s aeromedical branch seems intent on having a BMI on file for every pilot–a thought that should frighten us all.
The obvious question is: to what end? What safety improvement could possibly be worth the hassle and expense of this? There is none, and Tilton doesn’t really try to make an argument for one. Indeed, this seems to be a classic case of the FAA fixing a problem that simply doesn’t exist (see the ECi cylinder AD for another example). The FAA’s own study of nearly a decade of aviation accidents found zero crashes where OSA was a factor. A quick reading of the NTSB database or a survey of your pilot friends would come up with the same answer. While being overweight and living with OSA may be bad things, it’s only an issue for the FAA if it affects flight safety.
EAA’s letter sums it up best: “FAA’s charge is to protect the flying public, not to practice predictive medicine or further public health policy.” But this is the problem of the bureaucracy. The only incentive is to make more rules, close more non-existent loopholes and cover your rear end. There’s no attempt to balance costs and benefits.
At a time when most pilots are debating whether the third class medical should even exist, the FAA seems to be doubling down on it. Rarely has the FAA and the airmen it regulates been further apart on an issue.
Both AOPA and EAA were quick to respond, as were most pilots. A battle is definitely brewing, but it’s unclear what comes next. This was not released as a notice of proposed rulemaking and there seems to be no attempt to solicit input from pilots. Right now it looks like this policy will simply be enforced by AMEs, starting very soon.
We have real safety problems to address in general aviation–this is not one of them. This is a stimulus package for AMEs and a massive overreach by the nanny state. Not one life will be saved next year because of this.
It’s time for pilots to fight back. Let’s kill this ridiculous policy, but let’s not stop there. This latest stunt shows just how dangerous it is to give the FAA any say over the health of a private pilot. It’s time to get rid of the third class medical once and for all.