I’ve long believed that the airlines should raise the mandatory pilot retirement age past 65. After all, it would be a short-term solution for the current pilot hiring frenzy.
But at NBAA-BACE 2019, former FAA Administrator Stephen Dickson told me it wouldn't happen. Yet the idea is on the table. Senator Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) is sponsoring a bill to raise the mandatory airline pilot retirement age from 65 to 67.
“In the next two years, 5,000 pilots will [age out], not because they’re unsafe, just simply because they reach [age] 65,” Graham noted. “My legislation would allow pilots to continue to fly if they meet the qualifications.”
When I heard about the “Let Experienced Pilots Fly Act,” I thought it’d be a slam dunk. Yet after conducting due diligence these past few weeks, I now realize this isn't the case. But it’s a policy change that we should deeply consider.
Stop the Drain
Raising the retirement age would give the airlines a few more years to train more pilots. And it would also ease the pressure valve from a recruiting perspective.
Dan Drohan, founder and CEO of Solairus Aviation, agrees with this premise. “I believe the real impact to business aviation would be that we might just stop the sucking sound that we’re hearing within our industry,” he explained.
Yes, that sucking sound is the recruitment of business aviation pilots by the airlines.
Historically, Drohan’s aircraft management company has rarely lost pilots to the airlines. Over the last few years it has seen more and more depart for the airlines, alhough several pilots have returned to Solairus after a year or two of working at the airlines. “I don't begrudge people who make their own career and life choices,” Drohan said. “We happily welcome folks back to business aviation.”
While the airlines draw people in with a consistent, set schedule, there are many pilots who want a quality work experience, not just the schedule.
“From my perspective, airline flying just isn’t as much fun, flexible, interesting, or rewarding,” Drohan said. “In most cases, business aviation provides a higher quality experience, both on a personal and professional level. And we don’t set a hard age at which people have to stop working, so career-long earning potentially is actually far greater when you consider the ability to work for much longer if you chose to do so. Like everything in life, it’s a compromise.”
Clearly, airline piloting and business aviation piloting is not an apples-to-apples work experience.
In his personal network, Drohan knows many airline pilots. Half of them who are nearing retirement would welcome the extra years of flying—and earning the handsome, multi-six-figure salary. But, he noted, the other half cannot wait to leave a job they no longer have passion for. Some of them even have plans to work for Solairus immediately upon retirement.
Plus, many airline pilots are concerned that if the retirement age increases, they won’t be able to retire with full benefits at 65. “It’s pretty binary,” Drohan explained. “People either love the idea of an age extension or they hate it.”
Let Them Fly
On the regular, our team at API hears from retiring airline pilots who aren’t ready to hand in their wings. We very much empathize with pilots who love flying and want to continue.
But it poses a predicament because we often have to be the bearer of bad news. Unfortunately, there aren’t many business jet owners willing to invest up to $100,000 on a type-rating just so a pilot can fly another two to four years. That return on investment is hard to swallow.
So if business aircraft operator execs don’t want to gamble on pilots in their mid to late 60s, why can’t the airlines let them fly for two more years? Seems like the safer thing to do. After all, they are experts in airline aircraft!
How can we let pilots contribute and be productive and know that they're fine?
Weighing in, Dr. Tony Kern, CEO of Convergent Performance, finds the age to 67 topic interesting. Especially because he himself has turned 67.
“I feel pretty healthy,” he said, “I still go out and fly a little bit recreationally.” He also shared that back when he was the national aviation director for the Forest Service, some of their tanker pilots flew into their 80s.
A business aviation insurance executive also provided some insight into this issue. He told me, “Age seems to have less to do with accidents/incidents within professional ranks, such as airlines, charter, and corporate flight departments. This is likely due to rigorous internal requirements for physicals, fellow pilots’ and supervisors’ observations, monitored rest guidelines, and professional dispatch services.”
However, that doesn’t mean there isn’t clear scientific evidence of cognitive decline due to age overall. But with proper oversight and vetting, there’s a safe path for professional aviators. It’s the non-supervised, non-professional ranks where this becomes a bigger issue.
If airline pilots cannot stay in place, perhaps there is a good rationale for the FAA and/or training companies to make it easier for 66-year-olds to earn a business jet type rating. Kern added, “It might be safer for a tenured pilot to continue flying instead of establishing pilot training programs to quickly churn out 22-year-olds to fly for regional or charter carriers.”
A Different Perspective
But what happens if we don't raise the age limit? Kern thinks the market forces will fix this over time.
“Initially, there will be canceled flights until they figure out how many flights they can support with the pilots they have,” he explained. “Prices will go up, people will be able to get to fewer places, and it’s going to cost more money.”
He thinks demand will go down, followed by prices, just like oil/fuel did. “Then the pipeline will be fixed and it’ll come back healthy without changing anything on the age limit,” he said.
So what would this do to business aviation?
Kern said it allows for our industry to be really good at throughput. “People don’t like to think about losing our pilots to the airlines,” he said. “But it's a fact of life that a lot of pilots dream of flying heavy metal for the airlines.”
Of course, as a recruiter, I have a hard time accepting that business aviation now serves as a gateway to the airlines. I still think of business aviation flight departments as “employers of choice” for those “stuck” at regional carriers up until 2013, when airline pilots started to retire en masse again—at age 65.
One consideration is that perhaps we’ve miscast the entire career trajectory of a pilot. The aviation industry rewards tenured, senior pilots with the ability to fly the long-range international trips into their later careers. But that’s when their bodies are less likely to bounce back regarding circadian rhythms and other long-haul fatigue issues.
Why wouldn’t we design a career path that sends pilots on these challenging routes earlier in their careers? Be paid for tenure, not equipment. I’m sure that my idea wouldn’t go over well, but from a holistic approach to fatigue and aging, it certainly makes better sense to me.
With the economics of the moment in mind, I do feel that a trend is occurring for more and more pilots to want to stay in the air, whether they’re 65 or 67.
The bottom line: there are pros and cons on each side of the issue, but the positives outweigh the negatives. Let the experienced pilots stay if they want to stay. Plus, it will allow the aviation industry to methodically train more pilots—this is the sound solution to the pilot shortage that we’ve needed all along.
So, is it “67 or bust?” Whatever side of the issue you may fall on, I think we have to answer some of these important questions and make some necessary adjustments to resolve them. There’s a lot at stake here.
Sheryl A. Barden, CAM, is the president and CEO of Aviation Personnel International, the longest-running recruiting and HR consulting firm exclusively serving business aviation. A thought leader on all things related to business aviation professionals, Barden is a former member of NBAA’s board of directors and currently serves on the NBAA advisory council.
The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily endorsed by AIN Media Group.