The "Age 60 Rule"
U.S. pilots can fly until 65
Bush signs bill raising retirement age, ends debate dating to 1950s
By Julie Johnsson
Tribune staff reporter
December 14, 2007
Ending an airline industry controversy that has smoldered for a
half-century, President Bush signed a bill Thursday that raises the
retirement age for commercial pilots to 65 from 60, a standard observed by
the rest of the world.
Pilots say the new law reflects the reality that today's 60-year-olds are
physically fit enough to continue flying, and their experience shouldn't
be taken out of the cockpit.
The new law doesn't come a day too soon for Southwest Airlines Captain
Paul Emens, 59, who has spent more than a decade trying to persuade
members of Congress to rewrite federal rules that require pilots to retire
by their 60th birthdays.
"I have two very close friends who retire tomorrow," Emens said Thursday.
"That makes me highly motivated: trying to save the jobs of people I
Emens' friends now will be allowed to work for five more years, provided
they pass regular medical and piloting exams.
The new law doesn't allow pilots who've already turned 60 to reclaim their
jobs or seniority, the all-important airline pecking order that
establishes work assignments and compensation.
Pilots who've already retired would be allowed to resume their careers,
provided they return as lowly new hires, assigned as co-pilots on a
carrier's smallest aircraft.
"I'd have to go back as a junior first officer on a [Boeing] 737, which I
haven't flown in 18 or 20 years," said Marty Noonan, a retired Continental
pilot, who opted instead to head overseas to fly brand-new Boeing 777s for
India's Jet Airways.
The president's action ends a dizzying week for proponents of the new
pilot-retirement rules, which had stalled in Congress for months as part
of a larger funding bill Bush had vowed to veto.
But once the pilot legislation was spun out as a separate bill, it sped
through Congress. The House of Representatives passed it by a vote of
390-0 Tuesday, while the Senate unanimously approved identical language
It ends a debate that began in the late 1950s, when the federal government
first mandated that pilots retire by age 60. Emens says his father, a
captain for Pan Am, fought unsuccessfully to block its passage, contending
it was age discrimination.
But the rhetoric has been especially heated this decade as an aviation
downturn stalled promotions for younger pilots and upended retirement
plans for those at the end of their careers.
The new law gives pilots who've lost much of their pensions to airline
bankruptcies five more years to recapture lost income and will help
airlines deal with a growing shortage of pilots, advocates say.
Older pilots who worked for carriers that scrapped their employee pension
plans, such as United Airlines or US Airways, were hurt by the age 60 rule
because the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp., the quasi-government agency
that assumed control of the pension plans, has a rule that cuts retirement
benefits for those who leave the workforce before age 65.
Kit Darby, a 23-year veteran of Chicago-based United Airlines, estimates
he lost three-quarters of his retirement income and about $1 million in
pay because he was forced to retire when he turned 60 in May.
"It's pretty tough to swallow, and it's totally arbitrary," he said.
But extending the working lives of older pilots could have financial
consequences for their younger peers, especially those who've been unable
to move into larger aircraft and higher-paying jobs during a recent slump
as airlines shrank their aircraft fleets and canceled orders for new
Darby, who's also an Atlanta-based consultant specializing in pilot
hiring, estimates that about half of the roughly 3,000 airline pilots who
turn 60 each year will remain in the workforce.
"It means five years of stagnation for those who expected to move on when
older people retired," notes aviation consultant Robert Mann.
Others worry safety may be compromised since pilots in their 60s may find
it tougher to battle fatigue or rebound from jet lag than younger
"The reality is no one knows what would happen with large number of
65-year-old pilots in the cockpits of modern commercial airlines operating
in today's demanding environment," wrote Captain Lloyd Hill, president of
the Allied Pilots Association, in a letter urging Bush to veto the bill.
His union, which represents pilots at American Airlines, opposed changing
the retirement age.
However, both the FAA and international regulators have dismissed safety
issues, determining there's no statistical proof older pilots pose a
greater risk than younger, less-experienced peers.
"There's no safety issue; there never has been," said Denny Holman, 57,
who's a Boeing 777 captain for United Airlines and an advocate of later
retirement. "I take two physicals a year. Every nine months, I go back to
our training center and take check rides. At any point, an air carrier
inspector can jump on my airplane and observe me flying."
The move to rewrite pilot retirement rules gained momentum in November
2006, when the U.S. government first allowed overseas carriers to fly into
the U.S. with pilots over the age of 60 at the controls. This created a
politically untenable situation, since foreign pilots or Americans flying
for international carriers were granted a right denied to pilots flying
for U.S. airlines.
Citing that discrepancy, both the Federal Aviation Administration and the
nation's largest pilots union, the Air Line Pilots Association, eventually
supported changing the retirement age. But with FAA officials warning it
could take years to rewrite the regulations already on the books,
activists such as Emens turned to Congress for relief.
"I know these guys who had to retire, I know their families are in
trouble," Emens said, explaining why he took on this cause. "And I think
about it night and day. My only negative is that we couldn't get it done
sooner and save the careers of pilots who lost their jobs. That's the only
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