HIV In The Aviation World

December 1st is known globally as World AIDS Day. Founded in 1988, it is an opportunity for people around the world to unite in the fight against HIV, to show support for those living with the condition and to remember this who are no longer with us. 

The most recent estimate suggests there were 105,200 people living with HIV in the UK in 2019. Of these, around 6,600 are undiagnosed so do not know they are HIV positive. Globally, there are an estimated 37 million people who have the virus. Despite only being identified in 1984, more than 35 million people have died of HIV/AIDS, making it one of the most destructive pandemics in history.

FACT – ‘People on effective HIV treatment can’t pass it on’

Effective treatment for HIV suppresses the virus to such low levels that it can no longer harm you and you can’t pass it on.

So what is life like for those in our aviation industry who are living with HIV?

First we go back to the early 1980’s and one of the earliest patients of HIV – Gaëtan Dugas. Dugas was a flight attendant for Air Canada and died in Quebec City in March 1984 as a result of Kidney failure. A study published in The American Journal of Medicine led to Dugas being wrongly accused of bringing the virus to America and being referred to as ‘Patient Zero’. His subsequent portrayal in Randy Shilts’s book ‘And The Band Played On’ led to the male flight attendant being implicated in the social and political battles over AIDS/HIV in the ensuing years.

Gaëtan Dugas.

The 1980’s and 1990’s were a difficult time for anyone living with HIV/AIDS due to the sheer lack of understanding of the virus. Some airlines decided to ground crew who had been diagnosed and in one case, a crew member who they merely suspected. Passengers and even fellow cabin crew, became wary of travelling and working in the confined spaces onboard aircraft with those who could be unwell; an attitude brought on by fear and poor education.

UK airline Dan Air later admitted that they had stopped hiring male flight attendants in late 1985. This was due, they stated, to the fact that “A large proportion of men who are attracted to cabin staff are homosexual” and “as cabin staff are sexually permissive”, there would be a much greater risk of their crew contracting HIV and passing it on to coworkers and fellow passengers. Their decision was over-ruled by the equal opportunities commission in October 1986 and once again men were subsequently hired by the airline.

FACT – ‘HIV cannot be passed on through day-to-day contact.

HIV can’t be passed on through things like touching, kissing, sharing cutlery or glasses.

With time, came research and with research came a greater understanding of the illness. Slowly attitudes changed and once again male flight attendants were becoming accepted by the travelling public and their colleagues. One airline in particular was keen to become the USA’s first ‘Gay-friendly’ carrier, after being embroiled in a homophobic incident a few years earlier. An American Airlines flight crew had requested new pillows and blankets during a layover at Dallas, on a flight from Washington to California, after a number of gay passengers had been onboard the internal flight. The message, sent by the pilots, eventually leaked to the press causing an uproar among the gay community. Fearing a backlash, and as so many gay people were known to work for the company, American went on to educate its employees on gay rights and HIV/AIDS and became the first US airline to commit to nondiscrimination of its staff and passengers.

Here in the UK one inspirational pilot revealed his HIV positive status to the world back in January 2020. James Bushe, who had originally used the pseudonym ‘Pilot Anthony’ on Twitter to write about his battle to become a pilot while leaving with HIV, decided to go public to challenge the stigma which surrounds those living with the virus.

James Bushe

The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) had previously allowed pilots to continue flying if they contracted HIV after obtaining their commercial pilots licence, subject to medical fitness. However a person who was HIV positive was unable to get the accreditation needed to train to become a pilot.

Speaking to the BBC James explained: “The reason is that the CAA considered there was a risk of that HIV positive person becoming incapacitated during the flight, potentially. That rule would also have covered other conditions, like diabetes. The evidence for this was studies done in the early 90s. Someone that is on successful treatment and living with HIV now, is undetectable. They can’t pass that virus on to others and they pose no risk to themselves or anyone around them. It didn’t make any sense. I wanted to challenge it.”

And challenge it he did, taking his fight to the CAA which he subsequently won.

James had gained his private pilots licence at the age of 17 before he was even able to drive a car but when he heard his lifelong dream of becoming a pilot wasn’t going to happen he was “devastated.”

Today James is enjoying a successful career with Scottish airline Loganair, flying Embraer 145 Regional Jets in the right hand seat.

He told “Everyone has been incredible really. I wouldn’t have expected anything different. Loganair is a relatively small airline and it’s a family environment, everyone genuinely wants to look after one another.”

Now the biggest hurdle has been jumped, Bushe said: “The next step is to push the European regulator to revise their guidance on HIV completely to remove that limitation, to then allow people living with HIV to openly do any job in aviation because as it stands, what this limitation does it still prevents you from doing certain roles. For example, if you’re HIV positive you can’t fly a helicopter for a living, so there’s still a bit of work to do. However, the UK CAA are now on board with the process. I’m certainly going to be pushing for that change to happen imminently.”

Sadly not everyone has had the support and understanding of their colleagues like James.

Ex-flight attendant Tareq Nassri told his HIV story while working for AirAsiaX. Following his diagnosis Nassri was happy to learn that his employer was very supportive and was told that he could continue his career with the airline. But he soon realised that the support from his management did not extend across his co-workers. “During an annual class for first aid, an instructor told us we should always use a mouth cover when doing mouth-to-mouth resuscitation in case the person has AIDS,” he said. “The reactions from the other flight attendants were ‘eww, yuck’ and such.” Not all of his colleagues knew of his condition, but the thought that they could be disgusted by it “made me go into a cave”, he said. Nassri later decided to resign from a career that he loved so much, all because of some narrow minded and ill-educated colleagues. 

Tareq Nassri.

FACT – ‘HIV can affect anyone’

Some groups of people are affected by HIV more than others, but it can be passed on to anyone.

Wade Schaerer a 26-year-old flight attendant found out he was HIV positive in March 2017. Schaerer worked for a domestic South African Airline and his decision to disclose his HIV positive status to the aviation authority saw him grounded by the South African CAA for four months. He lost income as a result, was subjected to medical tests and psychological assessments that he later described as ‘demeaning and degrading’. It’s also left him with hefty medical bills. But Scharerer fought for his right to take to the skies again, explaining that his Antiretroviral (ARV) Treatment was causing no side effects and he was fit to fly. His airline supported him throughout the battle.  

Wade Schaerer.

Today the world is thankfully changing in regards to the perceptions of those living with HIV. Airlines and aviation regulatory bodies have updated their policies meaning HIV cannot stop someone from becoming crew or flight deck. 

For a number of years Austrian Airlines has been a partner of the HIV charity event ‘Life Ball.’ Since 1993 the Life Ball has taken place once a year at the Rathausplatz (“City Hall Square”) in Vienna and is the biggest charity event in Europe supporting people with HIV/AIDS. As the interest in the ball grew around the world the airline found the perfect “Austrian way” to help as a Life Ball partner by bringing numerous prominent supporters in the fight against HIV and AIDS on a special Life Ball flight from New York City to Vienna.

FACT – ‘People living with HIV can live long and healthy lives’

There isn’t a cure (yet) for HIV but there is excellent treatment. If you are diagnosed in good time and take your medication you can have as long and healthy a life as anyone else.

HIV is no longer a death sentence. Those on effective treatment can live and long and healthy life and most importantly they CANNOT pass on the virus. 

Times are changing, attitudes are changing and hopefully one day HIV will be consigned to the history books. 

If you have any worries or concerns about HIV then please speak to someone. More information, help and advice can be found at the incredible Terence Higgins Trust

© by Dan Air.

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