back view of pilot on plane

Pilots with Sleep Apnea

This post was originally posted on December 9, 2013, and updated on January 27, 2022.

What is Sleep Apnea?

Sleep apnea is a sleep disorder in which breathing repeatedly stops and starts. If you snore loudly and feel tired even after a full night's sleep, you might have sleep apnea. Sleep apnea has a long-term impact on health as it deprives a person of healthy sleep. Chronic sleep apnea can lead to diabetes, heart problems, and mental health issues such as depression and anxiety.  There are three types of sleep apnea:

  • Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is the most common and occurs when the airways close periodically while you sleep.
  • Central sleep apnea, which is caused by improper signals from the brain, compels throat muscles to periodically close during sleep.
  • Complex sleep apnea, which is a combination of both OSA and central sleep apnea.

What are The Disadvantages for Pilots with Sleep Apnea?

Sleep apnea can be especially dangerous for pilots. Sleep loss from sleep apnea can impair the cognitive functions essential for flying a plane. Over time poor sleep from sleep apnea can leave a pilot with poor concentration, daytime drowsiness, and reduced mental alertness, which can impact air safety for passengers.

Because pilots often have erratic sleep schedules due to their flights, their ability to acquire healthy sleep is further impaired. Life-threatening mistakes can be made in the cockpit when a pilot does not have adequate sleep. As recently as 2015, there were 4,917 FAA-certificated pilots who were being treated for sleep apnea.

Actions Taken by FAA On Sleep Apnea

The FAA takes the risks of sleep loss among pilots very seriously. The FAA has issued new medical guidance to Aviation Medical Examiners (AMEs) that will balance airline industry and Congressional concerns with the FAA and National Transportation Safety Board’s (NTSB) safety concerns about pilots flying with obstructive sleep apnea (OSA).

AME’s will screen for the risk for OSA using an integrated assessment of history, symptoms, and physical/clinical findings.  OSA screening will only be done by the AME at the time of the physical examination using the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM) guidance provided in the AME Guide. The goal is to identify pilots with OSA before they become a safety risk.

New Guidance for Pilots with Sleep Apnea

Pilots who are at risk for OSA will be issued a medical certificate and will then receive a letter from the FAA’s Federal Air Surgeon requesting that an OSA evaluation be completed within 90 days.

The evaluation may be done by any doctor (including the AME) following AASM guidelines. If the evaluating doctor determines that a laboratory sleep study or home study is warranted, it should be done at that time.

The pilot may continue flying during the evaluation period and initiation of treatment. If a sleep apnea diagnosis is made, the pilot will have 90 days to follow up with treatment.

Best Treatments for Sleep Apnea for Pilots

CPAP Therapy

CPAP therapy using a CPAP machine on a nightly basis is the most common treatment for obstructive sleep apnea. Compliance with CPAP therapy can reduce episodes of interrupted breathing and also provide better sleep for pilots. Many CPAP machines will allow the pilots to track sleep data to see proven results from the treatment.


In more severe cases of sleep apnea, surgery may be required for treatment. In the procedure excess tissue is removed from the soft palate and pharynx, which are common sites of airway obstruction in many sleep apnea patients. This surgery requires an overnight stay, and the recovery time may be prolonged.

FAA Approved CPAP Machines for Pilots with Sleep Apnea

For pilots treating sleep apnea with CPAP machines, the FAA has approved certain portable machines for both pilots and passengers so that sleep apnea can be treated during flight. Travel CPAP machines provide all of the benefits of home CPAP machines but are much smaller and more compact for easier portability.

ResMed AirMini Auto Travel CPAP

The ResMed AirMini is one of the lightest travel CPAP machines weighing only 10.6 ounces. Secondly, it features the same technology, quality therapy, and proven algorithm as the AirSense 10. It also includes special features such as AutoRamp and Expiratory Pressure Relief which can help new patients get familiar with CPAP therapy.

Transcend 3 Auto miniCPAP

This air-travel-friendly CPAP machine features auto-adjusting pressure to control air pressure to match your breathing during sleep. A useful drying mode helps prevent germs and mold growth after cleaning.

HDM Z2 Auto Travel CPAP

An integrated optional battery and waterless humidification are just a few of the useful features on this portable CPAP machine. The lightweight, compact unit, weighing only 10.5 ounces, provides all the benefits of home CPAP compliance while in transit.

Where Can I Buy the Best FAA Approved Travel CPAP Machines?

You can find these and other travel CPAP machines at The CPAP Shop. Our knowledgeable staff can assist you with finding the ideal travel CPAP machine for your needs. If you’d like to learn more about the CPAP machines mentioned or other quality sleep apnea products we carry, or if you have additional questions, call us at 866-414-9700, or you can contact us through our website.

Shop All Travel CPAP Machines

Chris Vasta

Chris Vasta is the president of The CPAP Shop and an expert in sleep and respiratory therapy. He often provides insights on product design and functionality on various manufacturers’ prototypes and is frequently tapped to provide reviews on new releases.