ICAN Threatens FAA With Legal Action Over Change in Pilot Heart Health Parameters

Last month, ICAN, through its attorneys, sent a letter to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) demanding an explanation for its inexplicable decision to broaden the heart health parameters for pilots. 

The new parameters accept PR interval echocardiogram readings that had previously been considered indicative of a “first degree heart block.”  PR intervals measure electrical activity of the heart. 

In order to be certified to fly in the United States, pilots must obtain a medical certification. One of the certification requirements is demonstrating “an absence of myocardial infarction and other clinically significant abnormality on electrocardiographic examination.”  This makes sense as the government wants to ensure that pilots have healthy hearts –– that is, until recently.

In January, news broke that the FAA had amended its “Guide for Aviation Medical Examiners,” which sets forth the parameters of the medical testing. Until then, and since at least 2014, the Guide indicated that, for airmen under 51, a “normal” PR interval was less than 0.21.

On October 26, 2022, however, the Guide was amended to expand the “normal” PR interval to under 0.3. This is immensely significant since PR intervals relate to electrical transmission of the heart and a PR interval of over 0.2 is generally accepted as indicative of “first degree heart block,” and a delay in the electrical transmission in the heart.

The FAA’s decision to relax cardiology requirements is all the more astonishing in light of FAA Federal Air Surgeon Susan Northrup’s recent acknowledgement that between April 2013 and March 2016, one of the “the most common medical issues,” that was “either causal or contributory” to fatal aviation accidents was cardiovascular disease and strokes.

Even more stunning, Dr. Northrup acknowledged that cardiac disease “is the most common cause of death in the adult population.” Why then would FAA let pilots with known indications of cardiac disease be medically certified?

ICAN’s letter therefore demanded an explanation for FAA’s unilateral decision to medically certify pilots with PR intervals that were previously and universally deemed abnormal.

In the absence of an explanation by the FAA, ICAN has threatened legal action for this arbitrary and capricious decision that jeopardizes the safety of the American public. As ICAN’s letter explains, the FAA’s own Guide for Aviation Medical Examiners acknowledges the grave risks of improperly certifying pilots:

“The consequences of a negligent or wrongful certification, which would permit an unqualified person to take the controls of an aircraft, can be serious for the public, for the Government, and for the AME [(the Aviation Medical Examiner)].”

ICAN will continue to monitor the situation and share any important updates.