Nearly 5,000 U.S. Pilots May Be Hiding Medical Conditions That Make Them Unfit To Fly

The FAA is investigating approximately 4,800 U.S. pilots for “falsifying their medical records to conceal…mental health disorders and other serious conditions that could make them unfit to fly.” Around 600 hold commercial airline pilot licenses, while the rest fly cargo, private, and other aircraft.

  • These are military veterans collecting disability benefits “that could bar them from the cockpit.”

  • Yet they have reported to the FAA “that they are healthy enough to fly,” failing to report these benefits as required.

The FAA has known about this for over two years, but has concealed them from the public.
Veterans Affairs investigators discovered the inconsistencies more than two years ago by cross-checking federal databases, but the FAA has kept many details of the case a secret from the public just as they hid that there were 300 near collisions in a year.

The FAA closed half of the cases of “incorrect or false information [submitted] as part of their medical applications.” Only 60 pilots deemed to pose “a clear danger to aviation safety” have been temporarily grounded.

Federal contracting records obtained by The Washington Post show the FAA’s Office of Aerospace Medicine allotted $3.6 million starting last year to hire medical experts and other staff to reexamine certification records for 5,000 pilots who pose “potential risks to the flying public.”

…In many of the cases closed by the FAA, pilots have been ordered to correct their records and take new health exams; some have been temporarily grounded while the results are reviewed, according to Lehner, as well as pilots and their attorneys. Aviation authorities also learned that some pilots did not disclose their VA disability benefits because FAA-contracted physicians advised them to withhold the information, officials said.

It may be that many pilots are being allowed to continue flying, despite the falsehoods, because it’s possible to claim benefits for almost anything, recognizing that getting paid for a disability doesn’t actually mean having one (“about 6 million veterans will receive $132 billion in compensation this fiscal year”). Some pilots may be referred to the Justice Department for benefits fraud.

Notably “[p]ilot medical issues were the cause of 9 percent of fatal aviation accidents during a 10-year period from 2012 to 2022” and the Germanwings crash looms large.

I’d note that the Air Line Pilots Association promotes a 1,500 hour rule as the linchpin of safety. These pilots qualify to fly under that rule. And in fact military veteran pilots come in under reduced 750 hours requirements. Maybe those invited into the guild aren’t actually the safest possible pilots? Maybe the Biden administration doesn’t need to extend ALPA’s preferred commercial pilot eligibility rules in the name of safety despite a lack of data that it supports safety?

As for ALPA, they’ve been “lobbying authorities to allow aviators to resubmit their medical applications without penalty for failing to disclose they were collecting disability benefits.”

It is a real challenge that many medical conditions aren’t going to be obvious in a medical exam, and that you want pilots with problems to be able to speak up. That’s doubly so when they’re mental problems or problems with alcohol and drugs. (Maybe not so much if it’s benefits fraud.) But speaking up and seeking help creates the risk of being sidelined, despite programs designed to encourage them to do so.

(HT: Christian and Paul H)

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Another pathetic article on a subject that you have absolutely no qualification to speak on. Way to go.

  2. This might be more easily handled if the FAA didn’t take forever to rule on medical issues and didn’t have an arcane system of deciding what was and was not disqualifying. The whole thing is a mess from top to bottom, perhaps analogous to getting into the sights of the IRS, and nobody wants to do more than the minimum. The BasicMed requirement–essentially a driver’s license “physical”–seems to have worked fine and there is no reason to keep the Third Class medical for private flying. (And it has never been required for some types of non-powered aircraft.) That would help a lot. But getting this bureaucracy to move, much less become more efficient, is about like trying to physically push a big truck into a parking spot.

  3. I’m certain way more than 5000 pilots are falsifying FAA medical disclosure requirements. It’s rampant and discussed openly in the cockpit. Most pilots have 2 doctors, the FAA examiner that is lied to and the real doctor that’s confided to. My FAA doctor’s visits are mostly uneventful because I know the routine and secret handshake. I’ve even memorized the eye chart.

  4. It’s irresponsible to draw a haphazard link between medical conditions and “300 near collisions.” I bet the vast majority, if not all, the pilots involved in these 300 incidents are not under investigation for medical conditions. And, in this context, is 300 a large number of incidents, or is it small because the number (more properly, rate: adjusted for the total number of flights) was a lot higher in the past?

    Second, a lot of people have limited knowledge of medicine and statistics and therefore request a lot of things that have dubious value, but incur a huge cost. Medical screenings are one of these. Are you the CEO of a corporation whose board requires you to undergo an “executive physical”? Board certified physicians at top medical centers — friends of mine — understand these to be a joke. Sure, they’re happy to get paid more, but there is zero evidence that such screenings have a positive benefit whatsoever. The general public (including boards of directors and shareholders) think medical tests are a lot more sensitive, specific, and free of harmful side effects than they actually are.

    Here’s the extremely simple bottom line. Medical testing is like worrying, in general. Most of the things we worry about never become a problem in our lives. Most of the problems in our lives are things never occurred to us to worry about.

  5. Unfit to fly is part of it. That determination is probably very fact-specific. But what looks to be guaranteed is the criminal act of knowingly submitting false information to the FAA.

    Lots of pilots lean conservative, so I’d expect the DOJ to be all over this.

  6. This is impossible to happen as the same entity that insures all fake emotional support pets don’t get onboard are in charge of the same medical screening for pilots
    Its a perfect system 😉

  7. Why not? Scamming seems to be the new way of life for new veterans. Now, everyone who gets out of the military these days has: a percent disability VA payment
    for phony PTSD diagnosis….a donated “service” dog…and a lifetime suite of free stuff/entitlements because they “saw stuff” and are hurt by it. I work with quite a few veterans and they’re all on some sort of bs disability. Also, I’ve yet to run into one guy, just ONE who says that they just cooked or cut the grass. They’re ALL seals, fighter pilots, on a submarine, special forces, black ops….the list of bs goes on and on. They’re all liars. Its only fitting that these guys lie on the FAA medical as it comes naturally to them. I’ll contrast this with my grandfather. WW2 vet, participated in actual hand-to-hand combat, came home, worked a job for the rest of his life all without asking the government or his fellow citizens for anything. No, service dog, no long shaggy beard, no tattoos all over, no t-shirt company, no constantly-worn “Thank me for my service” hat or other clothing item, no VA disability payment. Nothing. He had honor. Most of these “disabled veterans” are full of shit.

  8. In all fairness 95% of the population lies about their physical condition. People lie about height, weight, diet, exercise, they hide physical or mental issues, heart disease, depression, alcohol and drug usage especially if those revelations impact their ability to maintain gainful employment

  9. @gleff writes
    “@CERTIFIED – the connection is multiple instances of FAA hiding its failures”

    I guess this would be a scandal (or even an accurate characterization) if it were a recent development, but it’s not. I’ve held a pilot’s license since for 23 years (getting licensed in my early 20’s) and from Day 1, I was given the advice that DEFPOTEC offers. Your AME is on a need to know basis, and if you wanna keep flying, he needs to know very little.

    *My* point is that when the system is this broken for this long, the blame gets cast a *lot* more broadly. And for as much as we want to blame the FAA, congress writes the checks and lots of the rules. Yes, part of the “scandal” is the length of time it takes to get through the red tape if one is actually totally honest in their reporting… on an issue that will get their medical back anyway.

    As someone in the wapo comments section put it, the real scandal is how the VA pays out “disability” claims. If they want to call it compensation for injury, then fine. It’s a more accurate description of what’s going on, and doesn’t create situations such as this. I did, however, have to laugh at the reference to sleep apnea in the main article. I have it. You can safely with it under treatment. Without treatment, I wouldn’t let anybody get near the cockpit if it’s bad enough. But to pay out for it as a “disability” while treating it, and then complaining when the applicant has a civilian flying job? That’s on far more than the service member and the FAA.

  10. FAA medical guidelines need to be updated as well.

    I have ADHD, so I’m unfit to fly? I can operate any other type of vehicle, why not a flying apparatus?

    It makes no sense.

  11. “Another pathetic article on a subject that you have absolutely no qualification…”

    Nothing more than a weak-minded ad hominem. Way to go!

  12. Let’s take a guess… In 2021, pilots were given a choice, take a _______ in order to keep their jobs or refuse and lose their job. What chould have possibly have gone wrong?

  13. Hey, it turns out Trump is 6’3″ and 215…who knew he was so buff and fit to go along with being an intelligent genius. No wonder Melania married him.

  14. How many are ATPs and how many are not qualified to fly pursuant to FAA regs?

    The pilot bashing is getting old, Gary.

  15. The Federal Aviation Administration does not issue a “pilot license”, or any other “license”, etc. They issue a “pilot certificate” or others… big difference. As an airline flight instructor…I know! Another case of you don’t know what you’re talking about!

  16. @CHRIS
    You are 100% correct about the disability scam. 100% of the veterans I work with are claiming or trying to claim 100% disability. They get around $3500 a month tax free and pay zero property taxes. One guy is 100% disabled because he saw a crash at an airshow. Only one guy saw combat. They all even brag about it.
    It’s the perfect scam. If you say anything other than “thank you for your service”, you are an a-hole.

    That’s what these pilots are doing. So, on a positive note, they are all physically fit to fly and just making up these ailments for $$$ , they are just morally bankrupt.

  17. @ CHRIS & Steve. Since you both seem to know so much about Veterans and disabilities associated with military and/or first responder service, what branch of the the military did you serve in and at what capacity?

  18. @ CHRIS. Obviously the education you received never informed you that it’s inappropriate to answer a question with a question. It’s just as I suspected, you did not serve your country or community so you really don’t speak to anything except perhaps jealousy . . . envy, doubtful. Perhaps in your next life you will step up to the plate before you criticize those who “signed a blank check payable for up to their life” even for those like yourself.

  19. Trippe
    Yawn… never gets old with you guys does it? Blank check ya da ya da.
    Look, I had the intelligence to embark on a journey that led to a great career, one that pays me quite handsomely I might add. So no, hero, I didn’t “serve”….errrr apply for a job which requires minimal intelligence but returned with free food and bunk to sleep in. How many Applebee’s this you hit last year? It’s almost November, maybe you can beat last years total!

  20. CHRIS, good for you. You most likely had the ability to embark on a journey to a great career.
    However, and more importantly, you had the opportunity and you can thank a Veteran for that. Many stood tall in order that you could sit back and take freedom for granted. It is not surprising that you are a keyboard warrior as your guilt must haunt you at 3 a.m. Try being positive, it will change your life.

  21. Can someone put Gary in a tethered ballon where he can be far away from internet access and not post ignorant articles?

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