ALPA reverses course on opposition to age-60 rule

 - July 3, 2007, 6:25 AM

As the wheels of FAA rulemaking grind inexorably forward, the nation’s largest union of airline pilots executed a 180-degree turn on mandatory retirement for airline pilots at age 60.

In late May, the executive board of the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) voted by an 80-percent margin to end its four-decade opposition to any efforts to raise the limit. The union said that in the face of concerted efforts to change the rule by Congress and the FAA, the executive board directed that union resources be committed to protecting pilot interests by exerting ALPA’s influence in any rule change.

After the May 24 vote, ALPA president Capt. John Prater said, “ALPA pilots will be fully engaged in shaping any rule change. Any legislative or regulatory change needs to address ALPA’s priorities in the areas of safety, medical standards, benefit issues, no retro-active application of change, liability protection and appropriate rule implementation.”

ALPA represents 60,000 pilots at 40 airlines in the U.S. and Canada. With its reversal, it joined the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association and the Airline Pilots Against Age Discrimination in opposing mandatory retirement at age 60. The Allied Pilots Association (APA), which represents more than 12,000 American Airlines pilots, has not announced any change in its opposition to raising the age to 65.

It was the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) that provided the impetus for the U.S. to change its mandatory retirement rule for Part 121 pilots. In November, ICAO approved an international aviation rule that allows a pilot in a two-pilot crew to 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. Seeing the handwriting on the wall, FAA Administrator Marion Blakey convened an aviation rulemaking committee late last year to study the issue.

Proposed Rule Coming
Although the committee could not reach consensus on whether to change the rule, it did recommend that the FAA not make any change in the age rule retroactive. In that vote, ALPA and the APA opposed any change to the mandatory retirement age. Southwest Airlines and its independent pilots’ union, as well as JetBlue Airways, favored the change.

Then, in late January, Blakey announced that the FAA plans to issue a formal notice of proposed rulemaking later this year and will publish a final rule after consideration of all public comments. She added that the rulemaking process will take up to two years and will not be made retroactive.

That decision has prompted a spate of federal lawsuits from pilots who are at or near age 60. Most asked for exemptions from the rule so they can continue flying until the FAA promulgates the final rule.

The agency responded to such requests by saying that it “simply cannot overturn more than 40 years of precedent in this area without a deliberative process.”

Ironically, it was ALPA’s initial opposition to forced retirement in the early 1960s that led to the so-called age-60 rule. The issue surfaced in the late 1950s when the major airlines began to unilaterally institute pilot retirement plans that called for retirement at age 60.

Eventually ALPA embraced the rule as a way to ensure openings for first officers.