Airline pilots lobby Congress to change Age 60 retirement rule

 - October 9, 2006, 7:23 AM

A group of current and former airline pilots rallied on Capitol Hill in late May to protest the 45-year-old FAA regulation that forces Part 121 pilots to leave the cockpit once they reach age 60.

The group actually spent several days drumming up support for two bills currently making their way through Congress. H.R.65 andS.65 would raise the mandatory retirement age to the Social Security retirement age.

The Southwest Airlines Pilots Association and the Airline Pilots Against Age Discrimination sponsored the gathering. In attendance were Herb Kelleher, chairman of Southwest Airlines; Robert Land, v-p for government affairs and associate general counsel for JetBlue Airways; Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.); and Rep. Jim Gibbons (R-Nev.).

“We need to eliminate this highly offensive age discrimination rule,” said Gibbons, a former Air Force and Delta Air Lines pilot. He added that the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), which has historically opposed any change in the rule, is no longer unified in its opposition to raising the retirement age. According to Inhofe, an active general aviation pilot, almost half of ALPA’s membership now supports repealing mandatory retirement.

Challenging Forced Retirement

The pilots’ organizations said that momentum is building in Congress to change the rule, allowing qualified pilots to “continue flying safely and better prepare financially for their retirement and health care.” To bolster their case, they noted that the International Civil Aviation Organization recently stated in a report that there is “insufficient medical evidence to support any restrictions on age alone.”

Further, the pilots said that no commercial aviation accident has ever been attributed to pilot age. Only the U.S., France, China and a handful of less-developed nations have age limits of 60 or less. Both the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the American Association of Retired Persons consider the rule to be age discrimination.

Kelleher told the group, “I regard this as a moral issue,” adding that pilots over 60 “are perfectly safe and totally competent.” JetBlue’s Land agreed, saying, “We believe strongly in doing the right thing.”

Ironically, it was ALPA’s initial opposition to forced retirement that led to the so-called Age 60 Rule. The issue surfaced in the late 1950s when the major airlines began to devise and unilaterally institute pilot retirement plans that called for retirement at age 60, in keeping with similar plans for other employees.

In 1958 and 1959 pilots filed grievances about forced retirement against TWA, Western and American Airlines, all of which had pilots represented by ALPA. Western and TWA management used medical and flight-safety arguments to support their positions, which ALPA successfully rebutted.

In each case, a neutral arbitrator decided in favor of the union over the airlines. But American refused to reinstate three of its pilots who had brought the grievance against the carrier. When combined with a variety of other issues, American’s actions provoked ALPA to call for a strike against the carrier. A 21-day walkout ensued and ended with the pilots claiming victory. But American still refused to reinstate the three pilots.

After the walkout, American Airlines founder and CEO C.R. Smith contacted Gen. Elwood Quesada, the FAA’s first administrator and a longtime friend, urging the FAA to declare age 60 the federally mandated retirement age for pilots. The FAA issued a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, which included three versions of the regulation (air carrier, air-taxi and general aviation pilots). The FAA accepted written comments, but it held no public hearing.

Despite broad aviation industry opposition, the final rule, which pertains only to Part 121 air carrier pilots, was published on Dec. 5, 1959. It became effective March 15, 1960. Unspecified “medical uncertainties” about pilot health after age 60 were the primary basis for the rule.