Flying restrictions for pilots with a range of medical conditions could be lifted, after the European aviation regulator announced a review aimed at relaxing the rules.
Currently, pilots suffering from a variety of ailments including HIV, severe asthma or allergies and heart conditions are subject to restrictions: up to and including a total ban on taking the left- or right-hand seats in the cockpit. The guidelines are particularly strict for new trainees.
But after pressure from the UK, a review has been launched by the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) – the body responsible for writing the rules for airlines across the continent – into removing restrictions for those living with the virus.
The difficulties faced by HIV positive trainee pilots were highlighted last year when a man known as Andrew, who was infected with the virus, was told he would not pass the medical exam needed to qualify as a commercial pilot.
The decision was overturned by the UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) in January, allowing him to enrol on a training programme with easyJet, but only on the condition that he flew with a second pilot in the cockpit.
However, rapidly improving HIV treatments have brought renewed pressure on aviation regulators to review flying bans at a European level.
Experts say there have been no known accidents attributed to pilots because of the virus or medication used to treat it, and those with existing medical conditions are more closely monitored than recruits with a clean bill of health.
EASA has now said it will conduct a review of how medical certificates are issued for HIV positive candidates, with a view to extending this to other medical conditions.
It said a “thorough review of recent research” was to be conducted with the intention that the review be extended to other ailments “in due course”.
EASA regulations state trainee commercial pilots with certain medical conditions are ineligible to fly.
The CAA sought an exemption from those rules for HIV in January so that a trainee could pass their initial medical test, on the condition that they only fly in “multi-pilot operations”, citing improved prognosis and fewer side effects from treatments.
The UK aviation authority now wants those restrictions to be relaxed further, meaning HIV positive pilots could undertake their training in the same way cadets living without the disease currently do, including allowing them to fly solo.
Andrew, who no longer works for easyJet and wishes to remain anonymous, said he was “shocked” that “discriminatory” restrictions were still in force across Europe, contrary to “the most up-to-date medical evidence”.
He told The Independent: “With every rejection email, I became more and more familiar with the stigma of living with HIV. I was ashamed at being told time after time that my status alone would prevent me from becoming a pilot.
“The [US] FAA and Canadian CAA have already updated their guidance to allow HIV positive persons to become pilots. It’s time for EASA to catch up, quickly.”
Overturning the ban would mean pilots with health conditions that do not pose any danger to the safety of the flight, passengers, crew or those on the ground, would be treated no differently to those operating without a medical condition.
The rules for some conditions have already been relaxed, including diabetes and heart conditions. Advancements in cardiovascular medicine, for example, mean first officers or captains who have undergone surgery can be cleared to fly.