Sven has been working as a flight attendant for ten years and loves his job. But he prefers not to tell anyone at work that he is HIV-positive. Others like him have been prevented from taking their dream job in the skies in the first place - even though there's no good reason they shouldn't.

The original plan was to introduce you to someone who has seized his dream job. There on the right, we were going to show you a pilot or a flight attendant* in a smart uniform smiling cheerily. We wanted to express the idea that it's possible - you can work in air travel even with HIV. That's a step that shouldn't be taken for granted, because until recently, a pilot was the only job that people with HIV were barred from. And people with HIV are still often filtered out when it comes to recruiting flight attendants.


All that has changed now. Under new European regulations, the crucial factor in deciding whether potential pilots are fit for the cockpit is not whether they have HIV or not, but the all-round state of their health. And potential flight attendants for some airlines no longer have to take an HIV test at all. Other airlines still require the test, but officially HIV is no longer an automatic disqualifier - though in practice things are often very different.

Of course there have been HIV-positive flight attendants and some pilots for a long time. Most of them got infected after they were taken on, and the infection is no grounds for dismissal - after all, HIV can't be passed on by serving someone tomato juice or explaining to them how to put on a life-jacket. But even your contract doesn't offer any guarantees.

Take Marc, from Cologne, for instance**. The 23-year-old has been a flight attendant for several months. He recently got a phone call from his employer telling him he had not taken all the required medical examinations - including the HIV test. Marc knows he's HIV-positive, and now he fears for his job.

Or Torben, 28, from Düsseldorf, who has been working for a budget airline for several years. He would get better pay elsewhere, and he'd like to be based in Berlin, where his partner lives, but he daren't apply for other work. He's worried that the HIV test would rule him out.

And there's Sven, 34, from Berlin. He's been flying for ten years and loves his job, and he found out he was HIV-positive four years ago. "Suddenly I feared for my living," he remembers. "I didn't know if I could still do my job." He still hasn't told any of his colleagues of his infection, for fear of being thrown out. "Flying is a happy world, where everyone is always smiling - you don't know how your colleagues or bosses will react."

And lastly there is Daniel, 22, from Siegen, who passed all the recruitment tests, except HIV. If it's negative, the job is yours, they told him - and Daniel froze. Since then, his professional dreams have been on hold.

Why does this happen? The airlines' counterargument is, of all things, their duty of care. A flight attendant's work, they argue, is extremely stressful - unsuitable for anyone with health problems. And they say that moving between time-zones can make it more difficult to take the medication regularly.

It's an attitude based on prejudice: "So many flight attendants with HIV have long since proved that they're fit for the job and are fully capable of working out when they have to take their next pill," says Deutschen AIDS-Hilfe's Silke Eggers, an expert in the field.


To illustrate the point, we asked a number of flight attendants to tell us their story. The answer was always the same: only without our name or photo: "We're sorry, but we're scared of ruining our chance of promotion, or that we'll get fired," they all said.

Now we're glad we didn't find anyone. A picture of a happy, smiling HIV-positive pilot or flight attendant would have sent the wrong message. The truth is: you can fly with HIV, but it'll only be a dream job once you can tell be open about it.

Holger Wicht

* Either male or female - though most HIV-positive people in this line of work are men.

**All names and cities changed.

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