Saturday, December 4

‘Inconsistent’ AAC Medical Surveillance Pilot System – Occupational Health Expert

Pilots with medical problems protest against a security system that they say is broken.

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An amendment to the Civil Aviation Bill could soon come before Parliament, with the aim of modernizing a set of laws that are 30 years old. Stock Image
Photo: 123rf

This follows a major victory by a Cathay Pacific senior captain who took the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) to court for punishing him as a suicidal threat to passengers.

Graham Lindsay, now retired and living in Coromandel, found himself at the center of allegations in 2016 that he posed a homicide-suicide risk. This was a year after a co-pilot of a plane with 150 people on board deliberately crashed it in France, killing everyone.

An occupational health expert said Lindsay was trapped in CAA’s “archaic” aviation medical surveillance system.

“It’s not safe for the flying public for all sorts of reasons,” said the expert, Emeritus Professor of Medicine Des Gorman at the University of Auckland, who rates the system as “maybe two, maybe three” out of 10.

In Lindsay’s case, the district court judge harshly criticized the CAA for bias and overzealousness, criticisms the CAA said it accepted.

‘A really difficult journey’ to rule – Lindsay

“They put me in the limelight in aviation and basically portrayed me as a murder-suicide pilot, which is completely against everything I’ve ever worked for,” Lindsay told RNZ.

“I have had 40 years of flawless flying, and my integrity as a professional pilot was never questioned.”

The court heard that he advised other pilots and that he was a qualified plane crash investigator.

Lindsay said CAA was right to be cautious, initially withdrawing at its Hong Kong base, but then derailing.

Graham Lindsay, now retired and living in Coromandel, used to be a senior airline captain.

Graham Lindsay.
Photo: Supplied

“It started to come to light that this was just not right,” he said.

“CAA, I think, did not show that they have a fair culture.

“They don’t have a duty to get all the information. They seemed to attack me personally rather than looking for something professional.”

It was “very emotional” to get a ruling that medical advisers were wrong, he said.

“It has been a really rough ride.

“My mother, who is 91 years old at Ryman [home] in Auckland, he calls me with tears every day. So, you know, it came at a great price. “

Lindsay said she was lucky to be able to pay the $ 350,000 in legal bills (the court has yet to address the costs).

“I don’t want people to give up just because they can’t afford it or they can’t mortgage the house in order to finance something.”

‘Dark Age’

RNZ asked new CAA director Keith Manch if he had full confidence in his chief medical officer on the Lindsay case, but he did not make himself available for comment.

Manch has acknowledged the “clear deficiencies” of the authority in Lindsay’s case, but also says it has been fixed since 2018.

Professor Gorman rejects this.

He was instrumental in trying reform the surveillance system 20 years ago but, despite some changes in the law, it was largely hampered.

Back then, he found that medical errors allowed too many unsafe pilots to fly, with more than half of their medical files faulty, such as not registering vision or heart problems.

Two decades later, the system “belongs to the dark ages of … prescriptive health surveillance practice,” said Professor Gorman.

“Yes, there are some people who fly who shouldn’t. There are also people who are prevented from flying and who are quite fit to fly.

“It is inconsistent in both directions.”

The system encouraged pilots to hide medical problems, including mental health; he was prone to “losing some things … [and] overreact to some things, “he said.

Professor Gorman is working with the Airline Pilots Association, trying to amend the Civil Aviation Bill before Parliament that aims to modernize a set of laws that are 30 years old.

“If I’m a pilot, I don’t want to be the target of something that’s not a big deal,” he said.

“But if something is important, I want it to be handled quickly and openly and in a way that … I fully participate in solving my risks.”

Professor Gorman is hopeless. CAA was a clumsy bureaucracy too captured by the medical and aviation industries to budge, he said.

‘This really bothered me about this case’ – Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association

The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association echoes that. It was only recently successful after a decade-long struggle with CAA to improve the way recreational pilots obtain medical clearance, President Stephen Brown said.

A GP in Rangiora, Brown cites cases he knows personally, of a pilot who was grounded after he was prescribed antidepressants, although he was only slightly down, and CAA found out, and another subjected to restrictions after tests of alcohol that Brown said were unfair.

He read Lindsay’s 55-page court ruling on how CAA medical officers seemed “willing to overreact” due to international conversations about the risks of homicide-suicide flights, although these are very rare.

“They talk a lot with other jurisdictions around the world and they have … flags that they are looking for,” he said.

“But the red flags were very small in this case, and if you talk to people enough, enough, you will find red flags on all of them.

“So this really bothered me about this case … how it destroys a person’s life.

“Fortunately, Mr. Lindsay had a strong character and … now he has put all those personal things in the public domain, allowing other people to learn from his experiences and hopefully CAA implement some change.”

‘Sound’ medical decisions

CAA defends its medical certification processes as “robust.”

He cites the fact that the “vast majority” of his decisions are upheld on appeal: in fact, only seven of the 180 pilots’ appeals in the last decade were upheld by the conveners used by CAA.

Brown reads this completely differently.

“In my opinion, the convocation process is fraught with dangers. It almost always side with CAA,” he said.

“I imagine they have a bias in favor of the regulator.”

His association, as well as the Airline Pilots Association and trade group Aviation New Zealand, are now lobbying for an independent court that pilots can appeal to, but the new Civil Aviation Bill does not allow this.

Graham Lindsay had a stroke 18 months ago and is no longer flying. Some colleagues warned him not to take over a government department, but he couldn’t give up, he said.

Civil aviation had to start listening and learning. “At the moment, there is not much confidence,” he said.

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