Did the FAA Ban Pilots With Diabetes From Flying?
Yes, initially. However, the blanket ban is set to be lifted, meaning that diabetic pilots will soon be able to fly commercial airplanes. Here’s what you need to know.
A Brief Background
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) licenses all pilots in the US. To obtain a license, commercial or private, individuals must first acquire a medical certificate. The FAA provides three types of certificates i.e., Class 1, Class 2, and Class 3.
Before 1996, an insulin-dependent diabetic pilot couldn’t get a medical certificate completely. The main concern was that a pilot with diabetes might suffer an episode of high or low blood sugar mid-flight. A diabetic patient can, for instance, pass out when in the air and potentially lose control of the aircraft, putting the lives of crew and passengers at risk.
An episode of low blood sugar, known as hypoglycemia, is particularly risky. According to the FAA, the condition can seriously affect a pilot’s ability to fly.
“A hypoglycemic patient can experience impaired cognitive function, unconsciousness, and seizures. Even death is possible,” the agency once wrote in response to a lawsuit brought before the courts by individuals protesting the stringent laws on diabetic pilots. “If that happens mid-flight, the safety of hundreds of individuals would be in jeopardy.”
The Laws Eased Slightly Post 1996
Changes were made to allow individuals with insulin-treated diabetes to serve as pilots in the US. But, there was a catch; they couldn't fly a commercial aircraft.
A person with Type 1 or Type 2 diabetes requiring insulin couldn’t get a Class 1 or Class 2 medical certificate. They could only obtain a Class 3 certificate. A Class 3 medical certificate allows one to fly a private aircraft or fly for recreational purposes. The holder can also operate as a student pilot, a flight instructor, or a sports pilot. However, the individual can’t fly commercially; they can't be hired to fly for an airline.
This was despite other countries such as Canada and the UK already allowing insulin-dependent diabetic patients to fly commercial planes if there was a second pilot in the cockpit.
As you can imagine, pilots with diabetes weren’t satisfied. Even though those who used methods other than insulin to treat their diabetes were allowed to acquire Class 2 medical licenses, the American Diabetes Association kept pushing for the complete abolition of the blanket ban. Their wish was finally granted in November 2019.
No More Blanket Restrictions!
The FAA recently announced that the agency is set to do away with the remaining blanket restrictions on pilots with insulin-dependent diabetes.
Speaking to CNN on October 30, 2019, the FAA's Federal Air Surgeon, Michael Berry, revealed that they are in the process of establishing a process where insulin-dependent diabetic pilots will be assessed individually and, if fit for the job, allowed to pilot commercial aircraft.
“Advances in the management of blood sugars have mitigated the risk,” Berry said. “Recent progress in diabetes science and related technologies have allowed the FAA to develop evidence-based protocols that will allow us to identify low-risk candidates and ensure that these pilots maintain diabetic stability throughout their flights.”
It’s a Big Win for the Aviation Community
Although some insulin-dependent diabetic patients may still not get clearance to fly as Class 1 or Class 2 pilots depending on the severity of their conditions, there won't be a blanket ban anymore. Once the new order is in place, candidates will go through individual assessment and, if they pass all tests, they will be allowed to fly – even as a Class 1 pilot.