Addressing Obesity on the Flight Deck

By ALPA Staff

Obesity is an abnormal or excessive fat accumulation that presents a potential health concern for anyone with a sedentary lifestyle. When the body’s caloric intake exceeds the amount it uses, the extra energy is stored as fat. This condition is of particular concern for airline pilots, as their duties require that they remain seated on the flight deck for long intervals.

Your ideal calorie intake varies depending upon your age, activity level, and other factors, but most adult women need between 1,600 to 2,400 daily calories while adult males require between 2,000 to 3,000 to maintain their weight. According to a United Nations report, the number of calories North Americans consume has been increasing steadily since the year 2000, totaling an average of nearly 3,540 per day in 2021.

Determining your optimal weight can be accomplished by calculating body mass index (BMI). This figure is based on height and results in a value that falls within the BMI scale. A score of more than 25 on the scale is considered overweight while a score above 30 is viewed as obese.

In some cases, obesity can be the result of genetics. Health conditions like hypothyroidism and Cushing’s Syndrome can also be contributing factors.

Dr. Glenn Stoutt, a senior aviation medical examiner (AME), reported in his article “Just for the Health of Pilots” that “The epidemic of obesity is now a crisis. It’s one of the major public-health problems in the country.” However, there’s some good news for ALPA members.

A study published in the October 2022 issue of Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health examined the “prevalence and distribution of health risk factors in airline pilots.” The research concluded that pilots had a lower prevalence of obesity and a lower BMI as compared to the general public.

Even with this decreased rate of occurrence, excess body fat remains a significant concern for many on the flight deck. Although pilots aren’t currently tested (or disqualified) for obesity, AMEs and Canadian civil aviation medical examiners (CAMEs) may choose to monitor certain individuals with potentially disqualifying medical conditions that are aggravated by excess weight. If left unaddressed, obesity will increase the risk of Type 2 diabetes, sleep apnea, cardiovascular disease, and stroke and is associated with depression and certain kinds of cancer, as well as an increased chance of premature mortality.

If you feel you need to lose weight, talk to your physician, particularly if you plan to diet or fast while flying. Any weight-loss program should include an exercise regimen. In addition, be advised that most weight-loss medications aren’t acceptable for airline pilot use. Many have similar characteristics to amphetamines and could affect your flight deck performance. A new class of weight-loss medications, originally used to treat diabetes, may be allowed by the FAA and Transport Canada under specific circumstances.

Make sure you’re familiar with applicable aviation medical policies, particularly if you choose to pursue more invasive measures such as gastric bypass surgery. Talk to your AME/CAME about any procedures you’ll need to follow and when you can expect to return to work. You may also want to check with your airline’s medical department.

The Aviation Medicine Advisory Service offers a paper titled “Obesity and Weight Control for Pilots and Controllers,” which can be found in its medical article library and is free to download. The article provides dieting strategies as well as a 12-step healthy weight-loss checklist.

In the abstract of the study reported in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health, the authors recommend that “aviation health researchers should further examine targeted, cost-effective intervention methods for promoting healthy bodyweight, managing blood pressure, and enhancing health behaviors to mitigate the risks of occupational morbidity, medical conditions causing loss of license, medical incapacity, and to support flight safety.” With obesity continuing to be a serious health concern, these suggestions are more imperative than ever.

More Information

ALPA pilots from both the U.S. and Canada may contact the Aviation Medicine Advisory Service (AMAS), ALPA’s Aeromedical Office, to confidentially speak to one of its aerospace medicine physicians about health and medical certification issues. The office hours are Monday–Friday 8:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., mountain time. Additional information is available on the AMAS website. These services are available to all ALPA members at no charge.

This article was originally published in the September 2023 issue of Air Line Pilot.

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