Don't leave America's pilots behind

Like much in Washington, there hasn’t been a lot of agreement on big aviation issues this year. Should we have a passengers’ bill of rights? Should there be user fees for general aviation? Should there be in increase in the aviation fuel tax? It appears, in the 11th hour of the first session of the 110th Congress, that all of these critical questions will have to wait until next year to be answered.

Here’s another question: Should America’s most experienced pilots be allowed to keep their jobs until age 65? On this issue, bipartisan agreement exists. The answer is yes. The FAA agrees. Congress — both Democrats and Republicans — agree: 365 representatives and senators have put their names to a bill to change the antiquated FAA Age 60 Rule, introduced in 1959, in the era of the DC-3.

On Nov. 16th, Reps. Robin Hayes (R-N.C.) and Corrine Brown (D-Fla.) drafted a letter to the leadership of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and its Aviation Subcommittee. The letter was signed by 21 distinguished bipartisan members of those bodies.

The letter said the “pilot retirement issue is one that there is broad consensus on.” It noted that 50 “of our best pilots” are forced to retire every week, “most of whom are veterans who served their country in one or more wars.” Passing an age 65 bill “would have a real impact on safety by keeping this experience in the cockpit as we are facing a pilot shortage.”

Former FAA Administrator Marion Blakey agreed that safety is the reason to change to age 65:

“We’re moving forward because it’s a change whose time has come. The objections of the past don’t cut it anymore. This is the right thing to do. Experience counts, it’s an added margin of safety, and at the end of the day, that is what counts …”

The list of organizations supporting change is long and includes the AARP, EEOC, and the Vietnam Veterans Association. Leaders in the airline industry such as Herb Kelleher of Southwest, David Neeleman of JetBlue and Doug Parker of U.S. Airways agree with pilot unions, including ALPA and the Southwest Airlines Pilots’ Association, that it’s time for a change.

The world standard for airline pilot retirement changed from age 60 to 65 on Thanksgiving Day 2006. Since then roughly 2,400 American pilots have been terminated due to age.

Consider that an experienced pilot has at least 20,000 hours of flight experience. That amounts to a loss of 48 million hours of hard-won experience for America’s flying public.
Pilots working for foreign carriers can fly in U.S. airspace past age 60 right now, while American pilots cannot. How did we allow our national policy to give foreign pilots, who fly American citizens in U.S. airspace, greater rights than our own pilots?

ALPA testified before Congress, saying, “The current pilot hiring difficulties translate into safety concerns … In order to maintain our current level of safety, it is incumbent on our airlines and the FAA to ensure that U.S. airline pilots are the most qualified pilots in the world.” Where is the common sense in allowing thousands of our most experienced pilots to be terminated for no compelling reason in the face of a pilot shortage?

In the aftermath of Sept. 11, America’s airlines suffered horribly. So did their pilots. Salaries were drastically cut and pensions were eviscerated. Yet American pilots are not asking for a handout. They are simply asking for the ability to put their experience to work for the flying public for an additional five years.

Even with this widespread support, America’s pilots still wait for change. Language increasing the pilot retirement age to 65 passed the full House and Senate, more than once. Despite the fact that the primary legislative vehicle, FAA reauthorization, has been bogged down over other more contentious issues, Congress has extended the FAA’s authorization twice this fall without including language to allow America’s pilots to keep flying until 65.

Martin Luther King said, “The time is always right to do the right thing.” The time will undoubtedly come for another extension of the FAA authorization this year. Our message to Congress is clear: Include the repeal of the Age 60 Rule in any extension of FAA authorization — or alternatively, send the president a stand-alone bill that he can sign before the Christmas holiday.

What a wonderful present for the flying public — America’s most experienced pilots safely flying Americans home for the holidays.

Emens is chairman of Airline Pilots Against Age Discrimination.