WASHINGTON (CBS DC) — The Federal Aviation Administration is set to announce that medical examiners will be evaluating overweight pilots and controllers for sleep problems as part of a series of commercial airline policy changes.

The FAA announced the change in policy in response to concerns that overweight commercial pilots – defined as anyone with a BMI over 40 or someone with a 17-inch neck circumference — will have to be evaluated by a sleep specialist.

Weight issues are commonly tied to sleep apnea and daytime sleepiness issues that could easily hinder pilot performance.

Fred Tilton, the FAA’s air surgeon announced the “major” change to policy in the wake of a series of high-profile crashes suspected of being a result of pilot error: the Asiana crash landing in San Francisco, the Air France 447 disaster in 2009 and the accident in Russia last week that killed 50 people.

CBS News aviation expert and retired Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger – made famous by his emergency landing of US Airways Flight 1549 into New York’s Hudson River in 2009 – told CBS News that pilots need more manual flying training, and rely too much on computer automation. He said that pilots need to “be able to quickly and effectively intervene when automation goes wrong.”

Additionally, he stated that sleep issues combined with a lack of manual training are part of a “growing concern worldwide.”

“Sleep issues are very important to pilots and air traffic controllers,” Sullenberger said. “Undiagnosed, untreated, they can lead to a decrease in performance and alertness.”

The policy changes will eventually include air-traffic controllers as logistics are finalized.


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