Gravity of safety risk paramount in pilot licence decision – Matthews v Civil Aviation Safety Authority [2020] AATA 1163 (6 May 2020)

27 July 2020

The Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT) recently found that even mild cognitive impairments from a 1992 head injury created an unacceptable risk to air safety and affirmed the Civil Aviation Safety Authority’s decision that the applicant did not meet the medical standards for the issue of a Class 1 or Class 2 medical certificate for a pilot’s licence.

Although decisions of the AAT turn upon their individual facts and evidence, the Tribunal’s decision illustrates that the seriousness of the risks flowing from a medical condition (even one with mild symptoms) can give rise to an unacceptable risk to air safety.

Facts

The applicant sought review of a decision by the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) to refuse to issue him a Class 1 and Class 2 medical certificate for the purpose of a pilot’s licence.

The applicant had previously held a recreational pilot’s licence and hoped to obtain a commercial pilot’s licence. The applicant had suffered a closed head injury from a horse riding accident in June 1992 and this had previously been brought to CASA’s attention.

The Tribunal’s decision focused upon the effects of the applicant’s head injury upon his fitness to hold a pilot’s licence. In reaching its decision, the Tribunal considered evidence from experts in neurology, neuropsychology and psychiatry.

The medical evidence before the Tribunal indicated that the applicant was suffering from stable, longstanding mild cognitive inefficiency that had been present since the initial head injury in 1992.

The Tribunal noted that the applicant had never suffered a seizure and the problem he faced was cognitive. Importantly, the Tribunal also noted that most medical opinions did not go so far as to say that it was completely safe for the applicant to pilot an aircraft.

The Tribunal affirmed CASA’s decision to refuse to issue the applicant with a Class 1 and Class 2 medical certificate because:

  • The damage to the applicant’s brain and its functional impact must be characterised as a medically significant condition for the purposes of Regulation 67.010 of the Civil Aviation Safety Regulations 1988 (Cth) (CASR); and
  • The applicant’s brain injury posed a risk to air safety because of potential impairments to decision-making, reaction time, situational awareness and concentration.

Commentary

The decision provides useful guidance for pilots and aviation operators regarding the approach to be taken in considering whether a condition is ‘medically significant’. Aviation safety will be paramount in this assessment. In particular, the decision makes clear that:

  1. A medical condition can be a substantial or real risk even if the probability of it materialising may be comparatively low;
  2. Even relatively mild impairments can give rise to a fundamentally unacceptable risk to air safety;
  3. Even if an applicant has previously held a pilot’s licence (either private or commercial), it is not relevant to the decision – the decision-maker must be guided by all relevant material before them (including medical evidence) when making the decision.

This article was written by Simon Liddy, Partner and James McIntyre, Special Counsel.

James McIntyre

Special Counsel | Brisbane

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