Overweight U.S. pilots and air traffic controllers will soon need to be screened for sleep apnea, a condition that can cause daytime sleepiness and potentially jeopardize passenger safety, according to a new federal policy.

The Federal Aviation Administration's chief medical officer told physicians in a recent memo that they will shortly be required to calculate the body mass index (BMI) of pilots and controllers and send those with a BMI of 40 or more to be evaluated by a sleep specialist.

Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is a potentially serious disorder in which a person's breathing repeatedly stops and starts during sleep. It commonly affects people who are overweight.

The FAA said the condition has "significant safety implications," from excessive daytime sleepiness to personality disturbances, cognitive impairment and sudden cardiac death.

"Untreated obstructive sleep apnea is a disqualifying condition for airmen and air traffic control specialists," Dr. Fred Tilton, the Federal Air Surgeon, said in the memo to aviation medical examiners.

While the condition has been frequently discussed at flying safety meetings, and has been a "hot issue" at the National Transportation Safety Board for several years, the new policy will require airmen and controllers who are diagnosed with OSA to be treated before they can be medically certificated, Tilton said.

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