Overweight Pilots: Are They Too Sleepy to Fly?

In recent years, FareCompare has taken note of several incidents involving airlines and overweight passengers, such as the time Southwest ejected a self-described “fat” flyer after he was already comfortably seated. What we haven’t heard of are any issues about overweight pilots – until now. The focus isn’t on obesity, though. It’s sleep – or rather, the lack of it.

‘Too fat to fly’ passenger sues airline

Body Mass and Sleep Disorders

According to a recently-released Federal Air Surgeon’s Medical Bulletin, at some point in the not too distant future, aviation medical examiners will be required to calculate the body mass index (BMI) of pilots and air traffic controllers and use that to screen for signs of obstructive sleep apnea or OSA. As the bulletin notes, this “is almost universal in obese individuals who have a BMI over 40 and a neck circumference of 17 inches or more.” As the Federal Air Surgeon himself points out, OSA can be a big problem. “It can cause excessive daytime sleepiness, cognitive impairment, cardiac dysrhythmias, sudden cardiac death, personality disturbances, and hypertension, to cite just a few,” said Dr. Fred Wilcox.

Three odd pilot stories

Scary Pilot Incidents

In the past few years there have been some scary incidents involving pilots who allegedly napped on the job.

  • During a 2008 flight over Hawaii, both pilots aboard a Go Airlines flight to Hilo fell asleep and overshot their destination as air traffic controllers frantically tried to rouse them.
  • Last year, a Dutch pilot went to the restroom but couldn’t get in the locked cockpit after his return because the co-pilot had apparently fallen asleep.
  • Both planes landed safely but worries persist and this recent poll by a British pilots association doesn’t help. It noted that 56 percent of pilots said they’d fallen asleep on the flight deck which is bad enough but it gets worse: “Of those who admitted this nearly 1 in 3 (29 percent) said they woke to find the other pilot asleep.”

FAA to Implement New Fatigue Rules

On the bright side, beginning in January, the FAA is implementing new rules to combat pilot fatigue which will set a 10-hour minimum rest period before flight duty – which is a two-hour increase from the previous standards.


Published: November 20, 2013