An ongoing debate within the airline industry is whether the mandatory age 60 retirement rule is necessary or fair. Scott McCartney addresses the issue in his latest column in the WSJ:
THE MIDDLE SEAT By SCOTT MCCARTNEY
How Old Is Too Old To Fly an Airliner?
Pressure Grows to Raise Age At Which Pilots Must Retire;Experience vs. Reaction
You want the captain on your next airline flight to have some gray hair -- but probably not white hair.
How old is too old to be flying hundreds of passengers has long been a difficult question. Right now, the U.S. kicks commercial airline pilots out of the cockpit before they hit their 60th birthday.
But that may change. As pensions erode, there is growing push to raise that to age 65, and there's an increased likelihood that travelers will start seeing older captains in the cockpit in the next few years. Some other nations are already moving in this direction, and in Congress, lawmakers have introduced legislation that would bump up the age. Even the Air Line Pilots Association, which in the past has successfully blocked attempts to raise the age, now says it is studying whether a change makes sense.
Bert Yetman, a retired pilot, would like to see the age rule abolished.
It's a thorny issue. Gray-haired pilots have the advantage of extensive and wide-ranging experience at the controls, enabling smart, well-informed decision-making -- which is just what you want if, say, a plane runs into trouble. Consider that, in 1989, United Airlines Capt. David Cronin flew a Boeing 747 back to Honolulu after a large section of the fuselage blew out, sucking nine passengers to their death. Two of four engines quit and wing flaps were damaged, but Capt. Cronin's flying skills saved 327 passengers. Then, within a month, he was deemed too old to fly.
That same year, Capt. Al Haynes guided a crippled United DC-10 to Sioux City, Iowa, using different thrust from right and left engines to steer the plane when hydraulic systems failed. It was a remarkable feat of airmanship, and 184 people survived Flight 232. Two years later, Capt. Haynes had to retire.
Yet older pilots may also run a greater risk of sudden incapacitation, slower reactions or declining mental faculties. While medical studies provide no clear-cut answer, many show that skills do deteriorate with aging.
The Federal Aviation Administration has adopted a stance that retirement at age 60 has proved to be a safe standard, and why change if you might risk safety? "To date, we have not seen any research that reassures us raising the retirement age would maintain safety or raise it," FAA spokeswoman Alison Duquette says.
But pressure is building for change. The current "Age 60 Rule" was drafted in 1959, and critics note that we're all living longer now. If 70 is the new 60, why not let pilots work to 65, the thinking goes.
The notion is gaining some support from lawmakers. "We shouldn't have an age cutoff for pilots. It should be based on medical requirements and on proficiency requirements," says U.S. Sen. James Inhofe (R., Okla.), a 70-year-old private pilot himself who has introduced one of two bills in Congress to raise the pilot retirement age to the Social Security minimum, currently age 65.
Many other countries and the European Union have already moved toward age 65 as a mandatory pilot retirement age, and the Department of Transportation has already talked of extending the careers of air-traffic controllers to age 61 from 58. The International Civil Aviation Organization, which sets international standards, has drafted a survey to send to its members shortly on allowing captains to fly up to age 65, with an eye toward making a change in late 2006, spokesman Denis Chagnon says. And ALPA's decision to study change has fanned the fire.
One big driver is money. Pensions at several airlines have been cut drastically, some even canceled, so many pilots would now like to be able to work longer. As it is, they have to retire five years before they could collect full Social Security.
ALPA, the labor union, has long had big influence with Congress, and its study will go a long way toward deciding whether Congress forces the FAA to change. The union fought the Age 60 rule vehemently between 1960 and 1980, but then switched its stance. As airline growth and pilot hiring soared with deregulation, a younger membership loved the rule: If senior captains are forced out, younger pilots move up more quickly into higher-paying jobs.
Now, ALPA is studying medical research and data from other countries where airline pilots have been flying past age 60, and will poll its members this spring, the first time it has done that since 1980. "Twenty-five years later, things have changed," ALPA spokesman John Mazur says.
Mr. Mazur says the first question to be resolved is whether older pilots would degrade safety. If the union is convinced that they wouldn't, then it becomes an economic question, and an internal struggle between older pilots who won't have the pension they thought they would have, and younger pilots -- many still on furlough from struggling airlines -- who want jobs.
At AMR Corp.'s American Airlines, the union representing its pilots, the Allied Pilots Association, says 83% of its members oppose an increase in the mandatory retirement age. Of course, pilots at American are covered by one of the industry's most generous retirement plans, preserved even through concessions when pilots opted for pay cuts over pension cuts. Not all airline unions agree: The union representing Southwest Airlines pilots has been pushing to add more years to their careers.
This is far from the first time change has been proposed, but it does represent the most serious challenge. Retirement-age pilots have sued to stay on the job and lost in court. And the FAA has studied the issue from time to time. A panel including the National Institutes of Health in 1981 recommended that the age limit be maintained, even though it found no medical significance to age 60 as a mandatory retirement age. In the last session of Congress, a similar measure from Sen. Inhofe failed by only a 44-52 margin.
It's important to note that many safeguards are built into the system, regardless of retirement age, and pilots in failing health are weeded out. Commercial airline pilots must undergo rigorous medical exams, including electrocardiogram tests annually after age 40.
In addition, all commercial jets have at least two pilots on board, and they are trained to handle situations such as one pilot passing out. In simulator training at Southwest, for example, one regular test of crews is that the captain landing a plane will simply go silent and sit still, and the first officer has to quickly recognize that and take control of the airplane.
Bert Yetman, a retired Southwest Airlines captain who leads a group called the Professional Pilots Federation, which is pushing for abolishing the Age 60 rule, notes that the FAA allows commercial pilots to fly with prosthetic legs, hearing aids, organ transplants and even one eye. The standard is whether they can pass medical and proficiency tests. He argues that the same standards could easily be applied to, say, a healthy 62-year-old.
"I'm very optimistic it's going to change," says Mr. Yetman. "There are a lot of things happening that have never happened before."
Mr. Yetman still flies Boeings -- but only empty ones. He ferries planes being delivered from the factory to airlines, or flies old, retired planes (including ex-Southwest Boeing 737s) to maintenance shops for refurbishment before they go to new owners