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Alaska Pilots Face New FAA Sleep Regulations

By Garrett Turner, Investigative Environmental Reporter, gturner@ktuu.com
Published On: Nov 24 2013 09:08:00 PM AKST
ANCHORAGE, Alaska -

After several fatigue-related air incidents nationwide, new Federal Aviation Administration regulations could ground some Alaska pilots.

The new policy, implemented last week in response to a National Transportation Safety Board recommendation, requires that pilots with a body mass index of 40 or greater and a neck circumference of more than 17 inches be tested for obstructive sleep apnea, or OSA. Pilots with OSA will now require treatment before receiving their certification.

Adam White, with the Alaska Airmen's Association, says it shouldn't be pilots' responsibility to prove they don't have a disorder.

"Aviation is such a huge part of our life here in Alaska," White said. "This has the potential for a lot of pilots to not want to go back and renew their medical certificate because of fear that they might be included with additional testing."

The FAA defends the new policy in a statement, saying it's a step forward for both pilots and passengers.

"The updated sleep apnea guidelines that we plan to implement are designed to help airmen and aviation safety by improving the diagnosis of unrecognized and untreated OSA," officials wrote.

White says the other problem for pilots here in Alaska is accessibility to sleep centers. He says getting tested won't be an easy task for some pilots in rural Alaska.

"Sleep apnea is a big concern and a major problem, and folks that do have sleep apnea really do need to get treated," White said. "We're kind of curious -- what's the driving factor for this concern (about pilots)?"

Kevin Haynes, clinical manager for Providence Hospital's sleep center, says those with OSA could experience pausing in breathing, morning headaches and excessive daytime sleepiness -- symptoms pilots can't afford to deal with in the air.

"Anyone is capable of having sleep apnea; however, certain identifiable traits would predispose you more to having obstructive sleep apnea," Haynes said.

Haynes describes OSA as a medical condition where the upper airway collapses during sleep, preventing the adequate exchange of air between the lungs and outside air. Oxygen levels in the body decrease and the heart rate increases, forcing the blood pressure to go up as well. OSA is treatable, through means including a continuous positive airway pressure device -- a machine that treats sleep by supplying regular room air at a designated pressure to maintain an open airway.

"It simply uses air pressure to splint your airway open," Haynes said. "Positive air pressure holds your airway while you're sleeping and allows you to breathe normally."

The FAA says pilots who suffer from the sleeping disorder won't necessarily be grounded indefinitely.