Scotland's first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, has written to the flight regulator warning that it could be in breach of the Equality Act over its decision to prevent an HIV-positive pilot from obtaining a commercial flying licence.
The intervention came just nine days after BuzzFeed News published an interview with the pilot, named only as Anthony, who disclosed that the Civil Aviation Authority had blocked him from taking up a training position with EasyJet due to his HIV status.
In a letter to the CAA, dated 20 December 2017, Sturgeon expressed her "concern" about the case, reminding the regulator that people with HIV are covered by the Equality Act as the condition is deemed a disability. "Being considered disabled gives people with HIV protection against discrimination in many aspects of employment, including the recruitment process," she wrote.
"I am concerned that the current arrangements for providing medical certificates to enable people to train as commercial pilots do not reflect the current evidence around HIV treatment," Sturgeon continued.
"Therefore I am seeking clarity on the CAA position on this issue and your assurances that steps will be taken to avoid any unnecessary disadvantages in the licensing process for commercial pilots living with HIV."
The case came to light after Anthony, having previously been told by the CAA that he could obtain the medical certificate necessary to take up a commercial training scheme, was last year informed by the regulator that in fact he could not. In doing so, Anthony said, the regulator had "destroyed a boyhood dream" to become an airline pilot.
The CAA said it was simply following rules laid down by the overarching European flight regulator, the European Aviation Safety Agency. When approached by BuzzFeed News, EASA said the CAA could deviate from those rules.
Anthony said the Dutch regulator – also covered by EASA – had assured him that in the Netherlands he would be able to apply for a commercial licence.
The loophole preventing Anthony and other people with HIV from becoming commercial pilots hinges on medical evidence that HIV charities say is out of date. They say the rules fail to acknowledge the transformative effect of recent antiretroviral medication, and the scientists behind the research on which the policy is based said it was a "naive" and "simplistic" interpretation of the evidence.
Anthony described the predicament facing HIV-positive applicants as a "catch-22" as a medical certificate is required to obtain the addition to it (called an operational multi-crew limitation, or OML) that enables people with HIV to fly – but pilots need a pilot's licence to obtain the certificate in the first place.
The CAA has since told BuzzFeed News it has written to EASA seeking advice on how it could diverge from its guidelines, and how it could enable Anthony to take up the position with EasyJet – but said EASA had not yet responded.
The chair of the transport select committee, Lilian Greenwood, has also written to the Department of Transport about the issue. In response, transport minister Baroness Sugg told Greenwood that the government "supports a rule change in this area ... where this is supported by evidence-based medical research".
The British Airline Pilots Association has also offered Anthony support and written to EASA expressing its concern over the situation.
Regarding Sturgeon's intervention, Anthony told BuzzFeed News he was "humbled" the first minister had taken up his case and added that the CAA needs to change its stance quickly to prevent him losing the opportunity with EasyJet.
"Everyone is in acknowledgement that the rules are wrong, and the key part now is making a swift change," he said. "In the last week EasyJet have agreed to extend the deadline of the training place until June this year, which is great but it does mean there is a ticking clock now, so from the CAA's perspective, swift action and clarity on timescales would be appreciated."
HIV Scotland, which has been working with Anthony for months to try to persuade the CAA to change its mind and allow him to apply for a medical certificate, said in a statement: "The First Minister's letter grasps the severity of the issue. The CAA have acted in contravention of the Equality Act, and they must find a solution at the soonest possible opportunity."
The CAA had not responded to a request for comment by time of publication.