New legislation lets older pilots fly longer

 - December 28, 2007, 5:16 AM

Last month Congress passed and President Bush signed legislation that raises the mandatory retirement age for U.S. airline pilots from 60 to 65. That means that pilots at or near age 60 will not have to wait for the FAA to complete its cumbersome rulemaking process. Pilots who fly business aircraft under Part 91 do not have a mandatory retirement age, but since some Part 91 and Part 135 operators rely on aspects of Part 121 to guide their flight department policies, NBAA members potentially could be affected by this legislation.

Former FAA Administrator Marion Blakey announced in January 2007 that the agency was bowing to international standards and would abandon its decades-long adherence to the so-called Age-60 rule, which requires airline pilots to retire at age 60.

She said the FAA would propose a new rule to permit Part 121 pilots older than 60 to fly as part of two-pilot crews when the other crewmember was under age 60. But she said the rulemaking process would take 18 months to two years and would not be made retroactive.

But the legislation President Bush signed makes no distinction about the age of the second pilot, which means the new U.S. law is even more liberal than that of the International Civil Aviation Organization. The ICAO law that took effect in most countries in November 2006–the U.S. was among the exceptions–also stipulates that the second pilot must be under 60. So crews with two pilots over age 60 would be limited to U.S. domestic airspace.

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.

Within a span of about 48 hours, legislation that had been embedded as part of the FAA reauthorization bill that was stalled on Capitol Hill was reconstituted as H.R.4343, the “Fair Treatment for Experienced Pilots Act” by House aviation leaders. They hoped it would receive quick Senate approval on its own merit.

The House passed the bill 390-0 on a roll call vote December 11, and the Senate approved the bill by unanimous voice vote the next day. Bush signed it on December 13.

Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), a commercial-rated pilot with more than 11,000 hours, said that while H.R.4343 instructs the FAA to end the Age-60 rule immediately, it also allows unions and companies to establish benefit agreements so that pilots can still retire at 60 if they wish.

“Final passage of my language ending the FAA’s Age 60 Rule is a victory for our most experienced pilots who are suffering under the current arbitrary age standards,” said Inhofe, who has been battling for almost five years to change the rule. “Every day the Age-60 rule remains in effect, America loses more than five experienced pilots, many of them veterans.”

The FAA said, “The determined efforts of Congress have averted a lengthy federal rulemaking process while enabling some of our nation’s most experienced pilots to keep flying.” It added that airlines have the option to rehire pilots who are under age 65, but that is not mandatory and is the decision of each airline.

Pilots who have reached age 60 must have a first-class medical certificate renewed every six months; continue to participate in FAA pilot training and qualification programs to ensure continued acceptable levels of pilot skill and judgment; and undergo a line check every six months.