Group is pushing to raise pilots' retirement age to 65

From the time it was imposed in 1959, a federal requirement that airline pilots retire at age 60 has been controversial, particularly from the perspective of older members of cockpit crews.

Airlines at the time saw an economic benefit to the new rule, according to a Senate synopsis. It was cheaper to hire young pilots out of the military who had trained on new jet technology than retrain commercial pilots experienced in piston-powered flight.

That benefit has long passed, and airlines are now split on the age limit. But backers of a bill to push the mandatory retirement age to 65 have had difficulty getting their measure off the ground, as it were, in part because of opposition from federal regulators and the main airline-pilot trade union due to lingering questions over safety risks older pilots may present.

Hoping to build new momentum, a group calling itself Airline Pilots Against Age Discrimination has hired Patton Boggs, including former Sen. John Breaux (D-La.) and Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater, to lobby on their behalf. Slater’s former senior aide, Norma Krayem, is also on the lobbying team. The firm declined to comment for this article.

Fifty pilots are also expected in Washington next week to lobby for two bills that would raise the mandatory retirement age to 65, said Gary Cottingham a 55-year-old pilot based out of Indianapolis and member of the new group. As many as 65 pilots visited Hill offices in May.

In the House, pushing the retirement date to 65 has been a special priority for Rep. Jim Gibbons, a Nevada Republican and a former airline pilot. The bill has 66 co-sponsors, including House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Don Young (R-Alaska), who signed on in April. But so far Gibbons hasn’t been able to secure a hearing for his bill.

He argues that the government should be asking experienced pilots to stick around rather than forcing them out.

“At a time when the federal government is spending billions of dollars to increase aviation security, it is counterintuitive to remove our most experienced pilots from the cockpit,” Gibbons said in a statement.

He said there are no data to suggest pilots lose their capabilities once they turn 60. While a series of studies have found that it is impossible to pinpoint the year when skills will slip, safety concerns remain an obstacle to passage.

Age 60 is within an “acceptable range of risk for commercial air transportation … and has proven to be an effective safety regulation,” Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) President Duane Woerth told the Senate Commerce Committee last July.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) also supports the Age 60 rule. “We don’t believe there is any medical data that would justify changing the date. There is a degradation of physical capacity and awareness as you get older,” spokesman Les Door said.

That position has not changed much since the agency first studied the issue after pilots initially objected the rule in the early 1960s, arguing that the rule was imposed because of economic factors rather than safety concerns.

Despite the support of ALPA and the FAA for Age 60, the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee passed in executive session a bill that would push the mandatory retirement age to 65. The bill was sponsored by Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), who is also a pilot.

Committee Democrats, however, wrote that they had “serious concerns” about changing the retirement date in an addendum to a bill the committee approved last November in executive session that allowed for the mandatory age limit be lengthened.

The FAA continues “to believe that the ‘Age 60’ rule remains the best determination that can be made of a time when a general decline in health-related functions and overall cognitive capabilities have reached a level where decrements in a pilot’s performance may jeopardize safety,” wrote Sens. Daniel Inouye (Hawaii), Jay Rockefeller (W.Va.), Byron Dorgan (N.D.), Maria Cantwell (Wash.), Frank Lautenberg (N.J.), and Mark Pryor (Ark.).

The full Senate has not voted on that bill.

Cottingham said opposition from the Air Line Pilots Association has made his group’s efforts more difficult.

“They are a powerful force to be reckoned with in Washington,” he said.

ALPA spent more than $1 million to lobby last year. It is particularly interested in pending pension-reform legislation.

On the age issue, ALPA members are split, according to internal polling. But a majority, 56 percent, supports the current rule, Woerth told the Senate committee.

Two facts are indisputable, he told the committee: Performance decreases with age, and there is no reliable test to determine which aging pilots will become incapacitated in the cockpit or whose performance will decline in an “unacceptable manner.”

Cottingham counters that other countries, like Japan and Canada, have a retirement age of 65. And the International Civil Aviation Organization, an advisory group run out of the United Nations, also recently backed that age as the upper limit, he said.

Backers also note that pilots aren’t eligible to receive Social Security benefits until they turn 65, which creates a gap for pilots between when they are forced to retire and when they will start seeing their government pension checks.

But while Gibbons believes the rule amounts to “age discrimination,” according to his spokeswoman Melissa Subbotin, the courts have disagreed. The D.C. Circuit Court found that Age 60 does not violate the Age Discrimination in Employment Act.

Among airlines, JetBlue has come out for raising the limit to 65. Al Spain, a vice president for operations for JetBlue, told the Senate committee that the airline “believes that each pilot should be judged on the basis of his or her ability to fly and their competency — not an unsubstantiated rule based on outdated and mistaken medical assumptions.”