After a decades-long battle, the FAA capitulated to the court of international opinion in late January, announcing that it will propose a new rule to permit Part 121 pilots over age 60 to fly as part of a two-pilot crew when the other crewmember is under age 60.
Although many pilots–particularly those at or near age 60– hailed the decision, the change comes too late for pilots already over age 60 and some within two years of that mark. FAA Administrator Marion Blakey said the rulemaking process will take 18 months to two years. The change will not be made retroactive in any circumstance.
An aviation rulemaking committee (ARC) convened by Blakey late last year was unable to reach consensus on whether to recommend increasing the age to 65
for two-pilot crews if one of the pilots is under age 60. But the panel did agree that any change should not be retroactive.
While the ARC was ruminating about whether to change the longtime mandatory retirement age of 60, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) instituted an international aviation rule that a pilot can fly until reaching age 65 if the other required pilot is under age 60.
As a member of ICAO, the FAA would have to allow foreign airline pilots older than 60 to fly into and out of the U.S., although U.S. pilots could not. In response to the ICAO amendment and on behalf of the ARC, the FAA published a request for comments from the public about whether the agency should adopt the ICAO standard. When the comment period ended, the agency had received more than 5,700 comments, the overwhelming majority of them supporting increasing the age to 65.
Blakey announced the change in a speech before pilots and aviation experts at the National Press Club in Washington. The FAA plans to issue a formal notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) later this year and will publish a final rule after consideration of all public comments. “A pilot’s experience counts; it’s an added margin of safety,” she said. “Foreign airlines have demonstrated that experienced pilots in good health can fly beyond age 60 without compromising safety.”
Blakey pointed out that the Joint Aviation Authorities in Europe already allow pilots to fly until 65, so ICAO’s move to allow a pilot under 65 to continue to fly was the right thing to do.
“And in the interest of harmonization, it’s time for us to do so as well,” said Blakey. “The rule we intend to propose will be parallel to the ICAO standard: either the pilot or copilot may fly up to age 65 as long as the other crewmember is under 60. It is our intent that this new rule will apply to pilots who have not yet reached age 60 by the time the rule goes into effect.”
Blakey acknowledged there is a major equity angle to the age 60 issue. Under current rules, captains older than 60 carry Americans on flights on foreign carriers, from about three dozen countries, including Canada, Australia, Israel and Japan.
“They’ll be coming here, picking up Americans, and then flying them elsewhere,” she said. “So you have to ask: It’s safe to fly with foreign pilots on our shores, but it’s not safe with our own?”
Since 1959 the FAA has required that all U.S. pilots in Part 121 operations stop flying at age 60. Blakey noted that in 1959 the average lifespan in the U.S. was 69-and-a-half. Today, it’s more than 77.
“And if there’s a group of employees in better shape than airline pilots, generally speaking, they’re not coming to mind right now– well, maybe the Bears and the Colts,” she quipped. “Plus, there’s the added protection of a medical exam every six months specifically tailored to aviation, conducted by a professional who’s specifically trained to address the kind of medical conditions that’d affect the ability to fly.”
She reminded the audience that the pilots also are required to pass a check ride. “Given our safety record–we’re in one of the safest periods in history–I’d have to say that the pilots and those who check their performance are getting it done,” Blakey added.