Commercial Air Travel is Really Safe

For the last 25 years I have had the privilege of being a designated airman medical examiner by the Federal Aviation Administration. To earn that privilege, it required flying to FAA headquarters and taking a one week training course followed by refresher training material every three years.

The FAA grades medical examiners annually by our judgment and decision-making. The nature of the questions we are required to ask the pilot candidates, and the exam, have been dictated by the rigors of being a pilot and reflect the stresses unique to flying a plane safely. Many of them were created after a plane crash, fatality and the resulting National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigation revealed a health reason involved in the crash.

I attended my refresher course in Washington, D.C. this past week over a three-day period. Physicians designated by the FAA fly to the event and stay at their own expense. By law, the FAA is not permitted to pay for food, coffee or any expenses. Over 50% of the attendee physicians are pilots who fly to the conference in their own private planes. There are about 2,800 physicians performing these exams around the world and, judging by the grey hairs, and canes in the crowd; they are getting significantly older reflecting the same process in the physician population in our country.

This was the first time I attended this meeting and I saw a significant number of women physicians in the audience which makes me believe there is diversity in the physician examining population as well. The speakers on medical topics are first rate. We heard from leading doctors at the best places, all leaders in aerospace medicine and research in cardiology, neurology, psychiatry, otolaryngology, ophthalmology, fatigue and sleep medicine. I learn a great deal of general medicine to bring back to my medical practice medicine at these sessions.

Performing FAA exams for pilots is not a particularly lucrative proposition. You see 3 classes of candidates including the commercial pilots for class 1 exams, navigators for class 2 exams and general aviation or civilian private pilots for class 3.

As our pilot population continues to age, domestic airlines are now retiring them at age 65. If perfectly healthy, a class 1 pilot starts getting EKGs annually at age 39 and they are then seen every six months at a minimum. The exam and paperwork takes 45 minutes at least and must be transmitted back to the FAA by computer. If you detect a problem either by your taking a history, or performing an exam, there is a further investment of time and research to provide the FAA safety experts with the medical records they need to determine if the pilot is healthy enough to safely fly a plane.

I would say the vast majority of examiners charge only $175 or less for these exams. Try getting that time, attention and value when you go to most physicians for an exam.

The reward for being a designated airman medical examiner is being part of a team that keeps the skies safe for the flying public. Seeing accident and mortality rates decrease year after year brings an extraordinary sense of satisfaction. I get to work with extraordinarily talented and dedicated employees of the FAA, from the staff at my Regional Flight Surgeons headquarters in Atlanta, and the professionals in Oklahoma City and D.C. who read, train and study so when I fly from place to place, I arrive there intact after an uneventful flight. There you have it. Commercial air travel is really safe.

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