In 2020, Aviation Medical Examiners (AMEs) processed 369,962 FAA flight physicals. The vast majority of pilots and air traffic controllers left their examiner’s office with a medical certificate in their hands. In fact, of 546,503 medical certificates active at the end of that year, only 31,527 – or about 5.8% – required a special issuance . That means that most of the remaining 94% were able to navigate the process without much delay beyond waiting for a slot in their AME’s schedule.
While encouraging, those numbers paint a picture that is a bit rosier than reality. What is missing from the statistics that the FAA publishes about flight physicals is the number of denials each year and the number of medical certificate decisions that were still pending at the time of the report because of decisions AMEs differed from the FAA. In other words, even though only 5.8% of pilots and air traffic controllers required a special issuance, there is no recent data to say how many medical certificate applicants were denied outright or were stuck in limbo waiting on an FAA decision about their physical.
The last publicly available report that directly addresses the denial rate was published in 1978. From the sport pilot rule to Basic Med and CACIs to a more lenient approach to special insurance, a lot has changed since then. It is arguably much easier to obtain a medical certificate than ever before. Even so, only about 1.15% of those who applied for FAA medical certification in the 1970s were ultimately denied . The number of deferred exams that occur each year is more elusive. In AME training seminars, the FAA usually teaches that “over 90 percent” of pilots can be issued a certificate on the day of their exam, but as of this writing, hard numbers are lacking.
Now to answer the original question: how long does it take to get an FAA medical certificate? As discussed, if you are like more than 90% of your relatively fit and healthy peers, your AME can issue your certificate on the day of your appointment. The FAA maintains a list of current AMEs on its website, but they do not provide information beyond the examiner’s name and practice location. A better way to find an AME that fits your needs is by using our aviation medical examiners directory which allows you to conveniently search by location and read reviews from other pilots.
Once that happens, a lot depends on what you do next. If you do nothing, the FAA will typically review your application over the course of several months and respond with a letter requesting additional information from your doctors. Providing that information will often require you to obtain additional medical studies and specialist evaluations before you can respond.
When you do respond, the FAA certificate processing will again take several months to review the additional information. In the best case, they may issue you a certificate. Frequently, the review and submission process can repeat itself for several iterations. The process generally takes up to six months, but we have heard from a number of pilots who have spent more than a year stuck in the review and submission loop.
If you know you have a condition that will require your AME to defer your exam, you can speed up the FAA’s review timeline by preparing ahead of time. By setting up a consultation prior to your actual physical with a good AME or by hiring an aviation medicine consulting service, you can determine what information the FAA will require before they ask for it. By sending that information to the FAA immediately after your exam is deferred, you can significantly reduce the time your medical certification application spends in review. If you are working with an especially good AME or consultant, you can often eliminate the back-and-forth correspondence entirely.
Regardless of whether you decide to go it alone or work with an expert, there is one very important principle to bear in mind. The information you DO NOT submit to the FAA is just as important as the information you DO submit. That is not to say that you should conceal any medical information from the FAA – you absolutely should not do that. But there is a difference between being forthcoming about your medical history and saturating the FAA reviewers with redundant, inaccurate, and/or useless information.
The FAA will consider EVERYTHING you send them. Whether you provide a succinct, yet thorough, a summary of your medical history with the right medical records for them to make an informed decision or saddle them with thousands of pages of medical records that contain every detail of every doctor’s appointment you have ever had is up to you. A consultant can help you to find the right balance. It might cost you money upfront, but it will almost certainly save you months of time.
Ultimately it mostly depends on you. If you are in relatively good health, your AME can issue your certificate on the day of your exam. If you have a medical condition that will require additional review by the FAA, you should plan for at least several months following your exam to obtain your certificate. Submitting appropriate records immediately after your exam can often reduce that time to several weeks, while poorly prepared or incomplete responses can delay an FAA decision indefinitely.
To discuss your situation, get in touch with an AME near you or contact us to find out more.
 V. Skaggs and A. Norris, “2020 Aerospace Medical Certification Statistical Handbook,” Federal Aviation Administration, FAA Civil Aerospace Medical Institute P.O. Box 25082 Oklahoma City, OK 73125, DOT/FAA/AM-22/04, Apr. 2022. [Online].
 S. Dark and A. Davis, “Characteristics of medically disqualified airman applicants in calendar years 1975 and 1976,” FAA Civil Aeromedical Institute, Oklahoma City, OK, DOT/FAA/AM-78/25, Sep. 1978. Accessed: Jul. 09, 2022. [Online].