Age 60 rule comes under new scrutiny

 - November 6, 2006, 12:24 PM

With the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) poised to raise the age limit for commercial pilots to 65 effective November 23, the FAA has convened an aviation rulemaking committee (ARC) to recommend whether the U.S. should adopt the same standard.

But proponents of increasing the mandatory retirement for Part 121 pilots from the current age 60 to the ICAO-backed age 65 are crying foul, saying that the Age 60 ARC is stacked in favor of maintaining the current retirement age. They claim that eight of the panel’s 14 voting members oppose any change.

Since 1959, the FAA has required that all U.S. pilots stop flying airliners at age 60. Under an ICAO amendment adopted earlier this year, one of the pilots in a two-pilot aircraft can continue to fly until age 65. As a member of ICAO, the FAA would have to allow foreign pilots to fly in U.S. airspace after reaching age 60.

“The FAA must ensure that any future rule change, should it occur, provides an equal or better level of safety to passengers,” said FAA Administrator Marion Blakey. “I’m looking forward to hearing from the experts so the FAA can make informed decisions as the ICAO standard is implemented and Congress considers the issue.”

Legislative Support for Rule Change
There are already two bills in Congress to increase the age limit to 65. Earlier this year, the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee passed S.65, which would increase to 65 the age limit for airline pilots when the pilot is serving as a required pilot on a multicrew aircraft and the other pilot is younger than 60 years of age. It has been placed on the legislative calendar for a vote by the full Senate. The second bill is H.R.65. That has been referred to the House aviation subcommittee.

Under the Senate bill, the Secretary of Transportation would have 30 days after November 23 to modify FAR 121.383c to allow airline pilots to continue flying after their 60th birthday. It also orders the NTSB to submit a report to Congress within two years concerning the effect, if any, of the new age limit on aviation safety.

On September 28, the day after Blakey created the age 60 panel, 12 senators sent her a letter urging that the FAA adopt the new ICAO age standard. “As cosponsors of S.65, we have worked tirelessly this session to provide the FAA with legislative guidance that would afford U.S. pilots the same right that you will be required to give foreign pilots this fall,” the lawmakers wrote. “We are hopeful that Congress will pass this legislation prior to adjourning sine die this year.”

They pointed out that ICAO studied more than 3,000 pilots over the age of 60 from 64 nations, totaling at least 15,000 years of flying experience and found the risk of medical incapacitation “a risk so low that it can be safely disregarded.”

International law dictates that the FAA must allow foreign pilots over age 60 to work and fly in U.S. airspace. “It is our hope that, as you revise the rule for foreign pilots to meet the new ICAO standard, you will insist American pilots are afforded the same right to work until 65,” the senators said. “We hope you appreciate that a finding that leads to a rule allowing foreign pilots to work and fly in the U.S. to age 65 without affording U.S. pilots the same privilege will not sit well with the American people and most members of Congress.”

Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), an active general aviation pilot with more than 11,000 hours, sponsored S.65. In a letter to cosponsors, he expressed concern that the FAA Age 60 ARC is heavily weighted in favor of keeping the current age-60 rule in place and that it is therefore likely the panel will give the FAA the justification to implement the ICAO standard for foreign pilots while requiring American pilots to retire at age 60.

Of 112 ICAO member states responding to an ICAO letter, 83 percent indicated that an international age limit of more than 60 years would be appropriate for airline pilots. However, 16 percent–the U.S. among them–indicated a preference to maintain the current age limit of 60 years, citing possible safety risks and a lack of convincing data that flying after age 60 is safe.

At a Senate hearing last year, the Aerospace Medical Association testified there is insufficient medical evidence to support restriction of pilot certification based on age alone. But the two largest airline pilot unions– the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) and the Allied Pilots Association–maintain their long- standing opposition to changing the rule.

However, with pension troubles plaguing the legacy airlines, rank-and-file support for that position has been steadily eroding. In an ALPA survey in May last year, 42 percent supported increasing the mandatory retirement age.