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
The FAA has tried to take the easy road in the age 60 rule question by holding on to the status quo. The FAA claims to be in a catch 22 situation. They cannot change the rule unless they can prove that it will result in improved safety. They claim they can't prove improved safety since there are no pilots flying part 121 over 60. I suppose they don't consider pilots in the rest of the world to be real pilots so they can't use that proof.ReplyDelete
The FAA has fallen in its normal objective approach to amending the age 60 rule. Succumbed by obvious political pressures from ALPA, the FAA has chosen to become deceptive in promoting ALPA's theories about aging and pilot safety. The FAA has used questionable statistics to try to prove that pilots over the age of 60 are unsafe. The fourth report in the FAA’s Civil Aeromedical Institute (CAMI) series examined accident rates under 14 CFR, part 121 (scheduled commercial aviation regulations) and 14 CFR, part 135 (air taxi regulations) for professional pilots holding air transport or commercial pilot and Class I or II medical certificates for the period 1988-1997. An overall "U"-shaped trend was found, with pilots aged 60-63 having a statistically higher accident rate than pilots aged 55-59. However, all of the accidents involving pilots over 60 occurred in Part 135 operations. Pilots flying under Part 135-regulated operations have historically had a much higher accident rate and this difference influenced the overall distribution when the data are combined. Therefore, no definitive conclusions about the relationship of age to accident rates for pilots engaged in commercial operations can be drawn solely on the basis of this study. So the FAA tried to justify its age 60 rule based on the experiences of FAR Part 135 air taxi pilots! That is only because if you compare the accident rates of ALL pilots over age 60 with that of ALL pilots under age 60, as the FAA deceptively tried to do in it’s Civil Aeromedical Institute CAMI REPORT 4, the over age 60 group of pilots would appear to have a slightly higher accident rate. That is only because ALL pilots in the over age 60 group include ONLY the FAR Part 135 (Air Taxi) pilot group which has an accident rate much higher than that of the scheduled airline Part 121 pilots who are not now permitted to fly past age 60. The FAA permits the age 60+ pilots to fly the same airplanes in FAR Parts 91, 125, 135 and foreign airline operations that it denies in United States FAR Part 121 operations.
There is no credible information available that supports the notion that airline pilots over age 60 are more of a safety risk than younger pilots.
This issue has thus become political in the pure sense of the word. It is all about money and that is why the Congress must over-ride the FAA's normal rule making protocol and mediate a solution. Basically, it appears that the FAA will not fight a change to the rule if Congress directs the change.
The usual attitude in the past concerning the age 60 rule on Capitol Hill was acceptance by Republicans and resistance from Democrats who usually raised the specter of safety issues and deferred to FAA’s long-standing opposition. Now, “safety” can no longer be used as the argument against changing the age 60 rule for a variety of reasons. Foremost being the International Civil Aviation Organization, ICAO’s committee studying amendment of the world age standard recently voted 27-4 to raise the pilot mandatory retirement age standard to 65. The ICAO study was comprehensive. The world standard will change on 23 November 2006 and it is increasingly apparent that the United States is holding back for reasons unrelated to safety. This is particularly true if foreign carriers are flying into US airspace (as is now and may increasingly be so) with pilots over 60. Another contributor to safety fading as an issue was ALPA’s signing of Canadian carrier Jazz to a contract allowing flight to 65. ALPA represents Jazz and approved a contract that set pensions at 60 and allows flight to 65. Additionally, ALPA’s President Duane Woerth publicly stated that he would sign any ALPA over-60 contract for a United States carrier if the Age 60 Rule were changed in the US. Lastly, the FAA’s own modification of its air traffic controller retirement age undercut FAA safety claims. The agency has long held that 56 was a required age due to safety but this year granted age-waivers to the age of 61. At the latest Senate hearing on the Age 60 Rule, the FAA’s Dr. Jordan could not construct a valid response when asked by Senator Stevens why pilots were not granted waivers based on proficiency if controllers were. When FAA Administrator Blakey was asked at a news conference if waivers would be granted pilots, she commented there was no need as there “is no pilot shortage”, mentioning nothing about safety. With those words she turned the Age 60 Rule into a jobs program.
The current age 60 rule imposed by the FAA has no basis in science, yet it is still on the books. It is time for Congress to rescind this outdated regulation, and allow our best-experienced pilots to do their jobs.
As a doctor I see patients in their 60s and 70s who are much healthier and sharp than many still in their 40s and 50s. Pilots for the most part are a health conscious group who function at an above average IQ well into their golden years. I have been an active pilot for 47 year with most of my 15,000 hours being in twins with a lot of single pilot IFR. I am over 60, and 2 years ago lost the right engine on take off at 100 feet AGL ("O" ring in a fuel valve broke. I am still here to tell about it and the airplane, a Piper Apache is just fine. Evidently my reaction and reflex time was not hampered by being 60 years old. Until he died last year of natural causes, I flew with a friend in his twin Comanche. He was 84 years old, and monocular. I have flown with pilots half his age with both their eyes who did not fly half as good as that elderly man. It depends on the person, not the age. As a doctor and as I pilot I would say that under usual medical supervision, there is absolutly no reason why an airline pilot can not fly to age 65. Dr. Paul Yocom - Titusville, Florida.ReplyDelete