Senate mulls new pilot retirement age legislation

 - September 29, 2006, 10:42 AM

Despite the precariousness of the legacy airlines and their pension plans, their pilots still narrowly support the FAA’s mandatory age-60 retirement rule for Part 121 airline pilots. But most pilots flying for the lower-cost carriers advocate eliminating the rule or at least modifying it to enable them to remain in the cockpit longer.

Not surprisingly, the FAA continues to adhere to its five-decade-old position that mandatory retire- ment at age 60 for Part 121 pilots is a safety measure, when in fact it was likely the outgrowth of a labor dispute between the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) and American Airlines, which ALPA then represented. ALPA’s stance then was the opposite of what it is now; at the time the union fought the forced retirement that American and some other airlines wanted to institute for economic reasons.

At a July hearing before the Senate aviation subcommittee, the Aerospace Medical Association (AsMA), a professional organization devoted to aviation, space and environmental medicine, reiterated that after reviewing the existing evidence, it concluded there is “insufficient medical evidence to support restriction of pilot certification based upon age alone.”

According to Dr. Russell Rayman, AsMA executive director, his organization’s position is that the retirement age could be raised. “We would be willing to work with anybody to determine whether [more] tests are needed,” he said. “There is a possibility we would recommend no further testing.”

Retirement Age Legislation

The AsMA has suggested that the FAA could abandon the Age 60 Rule altogether, increase the age limit to 65 for all pilots who have not reached 60 at the time of the change or allow some selected pilots to fly after reaching age 60 and closely monitor the results over a period of time to help develop cognitive tests.

Rayman admitted that would be a daunting task, but the only alternative is to study general aviation pilots, and those studies, he said, “are vexing in their inconsistencies and differences.”

Two bills to overturn the age-60 retirement rule are working their way through Congress. H.R.65 is the work of Rep. Jim Gibbons (R-Nev.), a former Air Force and Delta Air Lines pilot with more than 22,000 flight hours. Sen. James Inhofe (D-Okla.), an active general aviation pilot with 11,000 hours, authored S.65. Both bills would replace the current rule with a plan that ties the commercial pilot retirement age to the Social Security retirement age, currently 65.

Gibbons, 60, told the Senate aviation subcommittee that he is “outraged by the blatant age discrimination” of the FAA’s current rule, and he emphasized that it forces pilots out of the cockpit five years before they can receive Social Security benefits.

Although his bill would not require pilots to work past 60 or force airlines to rehire those who already have retired, it would give pilots the option of working until they can begin collecting Social Security. “I certainly don’t think this is too much to ask,” said Gibbons. “Safe pilots should be allowed to continue to fly, period. It is time for this rule to be overturned.”

He added that more than 50 other countries allow their pilots to fly beyond age 60, and even the FAA allows its staff pilots to remain in the cockpit after they turn 60.

Inhofe, 70, who currently owns and flies three GA aircraft, said that only 25 nations have a limit of 60 years or less. “If you are taking very stringent medical tests and proficiency tests, you should continue to fly,” he told his Senate colleagues. “There is something good that can be said for experience.”

The two largest airline pilot unions–ALPA (which represents 64,000 airline pilots at 41 airlines in the U.S. and Canada) and the Allied Pilots Association (which represents 13,500 American Airlines pilots)–maintain their longstanding opposition to changing the rule. However, pension troubles at the legacy airlines have been steadily eroding support for the age-60 retirement rule.

The latest survey by ALPA in May showed that only 56 percent of its members oppose changing the rule, while 42 percent support changing it. Capt. Duane Woerth, president of ALPA, conceded, “We have a split membership on this, but we have a clear majority.”

ALPA has supported the mandatory retirement rule only since about 1980, though the rule was promulgated in 1959 by the first FAA Administrator, retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Elwood Quesada. In fact, a dispute between ALPA, which then opposed age-based retirement, and American Airlines CEO C.R. Smith may have led to the rule. When Quesada retired two years later, he was immediately elected to American’s board of directors.

‘Antiquated and Discriminatory’

Dr. Jon Jordan, FAA federal flight surgeon, reiterated that the Age 60 Rule “represents the FAA’s best determination of the time when a general decline in health-related functions and overall cognitive and performance capabilities may begin and reach a level where a pilot’s judgment and physical ability may begin to decline and therefore jeopardize safety.”

But he conceded that the FAA grants waivers for foreign pilots who are older than 60 because of international concerns and international policy.

While ALPA and the Allied Pilots Association continue to back the age-60 retirement rule, Capt. Joseph Eichelkraut, president of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association, and Capt. Al Spain, senior v-p of operations for JetBlue Airways, agree that Congress should abolish the rule.

Calling the rule “antiquated and discriminatory,” Eichelkraut said “it is our belief that safety is actually compromised by requiring our most experienced pilots to retire at the peak of their careers.”

Spain told the Senate panel that “JetBlue believes that each pilot should be judged on the basis of his ability to fly and his competency not on an unsubstantiated rule based on outdated and mistaken medical assumptions.”

In late May, a group of current and former airline pilots rallied on Capitol Hill to protest the rule, spending several days drumming up support for H.R.65 and S.65. Herb Kelleher, Southwest’s chairman, told the group, “I regard this as a moral issue,” adding that pilots older than 60 “are perfectly safe and totally competent.”