Airlines, unions resist sleep tests for pilots

Business and labor are trying to slow down the Obama administration’s push to require that pilots be tested for sleep disorders.

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Lobbyists sprang into action last month after the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) proposed the testing, and a House committee quickly advanced legislation that would slow the regulations down.
 
Capt. Coley George, a pilot for over 20 years, met last week with members of Congress to try and garner support for the legislation, which would have the FAA go through a formal rulemaking process before requiring pilots and air traffic controllers to undergo the screenings.
 
“The issue is this is something that caught us all off guard,” Coley said. “The opportunity for us to slow down, have a look at this and have input is the right thing to do.” 
 
The bill, sponsored by Rep. Frank LoBiondo (R-N.J.), was passed out of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee by voice vote, just two weeks after its introduction. 

The legislation has 22 co-sponsors so far, according to a LoBiondo spokesman, including Democratic Reps. Rick Larsen (Wash.) and Dan Lipinski (Ill.).
 
At issue is a move by the FAA to identify pilots with Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA), a disorder that can affects sleep and can cause drowsiness as well as impaired thinking.
 
The agency is considering requiring sleep apnea tests for pilots and air traffic controllers who have a body mass index (BMI) of 40 or more, who are typically obese and prone to the disorder. Any pilot with BMI over 40 would have to be evaluated by a sleep specialist.

“OSA can have a direct effect on flying safety because it causes excessive daytime sleepiness and cognitive impairment,” the FAA said in a statement, noting it is responding to a recommendation from the National Transportation Safety Board to find pilots with OSA.  

The agency argues sleep disorders can lead to aviation accidents. The FAA cites 34 accidents involving people with sleep apnea, as well as a 2008 flight that had two pilots fall asleep.

Critics have questioned that reasoning. 
 
“No scientific body of evidence has demonstrated that undiagnosed obesity or OSA has compromised aviation safety,” said the Civil Aviation Medical Association in a Dec. 1 letter sent to FAA Administrator Michael Huerta. The group, which includes medical examiners that certifies pilots, has objected to several parts of the FAA proposal. 

Pilot unions and aviation business groups have pushed back as well. 
 
“Requiring pilots to undergo a sleep study for a disorder that they are not showing symptoms for, and have to shell out $3,000 for, is asking a bit much,” George said. 

George is vice president of industry affairs for the NetJets Association of Shared Aircraft Pilots, the pilots union for NetJets, a corporate jet company. The company, based in Ohio, employs more than 3,000 pilots and has 400 jets.  

Business groups say the FAA rules are another example of needless regulations.

“It's clearly a costly regulation where evidence hasn't shown a relationship to performance. There has no been outreach and dialogue with the community,” said Ed Bolen, president and CEO of the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA).  

Many groups want the FAA to slow down and move through the rulemaking process, which will allow for industry and labor groups to comment on the proposal before it goes into practice.

“We don't view this as a positive step because it deviates from a process that has worked well for airline travel,” said Michael Robbins, director of government affairs for the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA). ALPA represents 50,000 pilots at 32 different U.S. and Canadian airlines.

The National Air Traffic Controllers Association also backs the bill requiring the full rulemaking process.

“From a controller perspective, this legislation will reinforce the collaborative approach that is already underway,” the union said in a statement. 
 
A Dear Colleague letter signed by LoBiondo and other lawmakers touts industry and labor support for the bill, saying “the FAA would subject individuals who might be at risk of having a sleep disorder, even in the absence of any clinical evidence, to potentially thousands of dollars’ of testing and evaluation.” 

The FAA has tried to temper the opposition. The agency hosted a webinar on Thursday to explain its proposal, but the NBAA blasted the session, saying it gave little chance for them and others to provide feedback. 

“It's why we have rulemaking to begin with. Something is put forward. Industry comments on it. Industry comments are taken into consideration. This just seems a little out of the blue,” said Bolen with NBAA. 

Lobbyists will be looking for the House to pass the bill when they return to Capitol Hill after the holiday recess.

“In January, we hope that they will take this up and we will be looking for a partner from the Senate side,” George said.