Pilots could fly until age 65, under FAA proposal

January 31, 2007|By Cox News Service

WASHINGTON -- Airline pilots could keep flying until age 65, five years beyond the current limit, under a Federal Aviation Administration proposal announced yesterday.

"It's time for a change," FAA chief Marion C. Blakey said in a speech at the National Press Club. "We're all living longer and healthier, and that includes in the cockpit."

The plan could alter the retirement plans of thousands of pilots approaching their 60s, and may help the industry cope with a growing pilot shortage and mounting pension costs.

Blakey said the FAA would formally propose a rule this year, and then would need time to weigh public comments. Writing the final rule could take two years, she said.

She said the FAA wants to make the change because "a pilot's experience counts - it's an added margin of safety." She noted that "foreign airlines have demonstrated that experienced pilots in good health can fly beyond age 60 without compromising safety."

In addition, as air travel expands globally, especially in China and India, the number of pilots is shrinking to where there are "critical" shortages in many areas, she said.

When it comes to replacing retirees, "the pipeline is not as full as we'd like it to be," Blakey said.

John Prater, president of the Air Line Pilots Association, was in attendance and told reporters that the union, which previously had opposed such a change, now is "prepared to deal with it." The union will use a "blue-ribbon" panel to study the issue and make recommendations, he said.

Duane E. Woerth, the immediate past president of the pilots association, also attended Blakey's speech. At age 58 1/2 , he described himself as "a classic example" of a baby boomer who might not be allowed to keep flying because the new rule might not be in place when he turns 60.

Once a pilot retires, he or she will not be allowed to return to the cockpit even if the rule changes.

Woerth said polling by the union suggests most pilots would prefer to keep the retirement age at 60, but acknowledged that "the industry is split," with many wanting the change.

Among those who might oppose a higher retirement age are younger pilots who want to move up to the highest-paying jobs. Also, many older pilots, eager to retire at age 60 after years of long absences from home, fear that they would have to work longer to earn maximum benefits.

Those who favor a later retirement include pilots whose bankrupt employers have dumped their pension plans on the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp., vastly reducing their plans' monthly payouts. Also, some pilots love flying and want to keep working.

For the airlines, a retirement age of 65 also has pluses and minuses.

On the one hand, it would allow airlines to retain their most experienced pilots, cutting down on training costs and reducing pilot shortages that could drive wages higher. Also, airlines could reduce pension costs if pilots worked beyond age 60 because the companies would pay benefits for fewer years.

On the other hand, the carriers would have to pay senior pilots more instead of replacing them with younger, cheaper ones.

The Air Transport Association, the trade group for major airlines, said that while it "continues to remain neutral on the issue of whether to adopt the new rule, we will work closely with FAA to ensure a smooth transition should they ultimately decide to change the age limit."

Air Transport Association President James C. May attended Blakey's speech, and said afterward that "it's too early to tell" what the full economic impact would be on the industry.

While the rule change is not a foregone conclusion, the conciliatory stance of the pilots and transport associations makes it likely to be implemented.

Since 1959, the FAA has required U.S. pilots to retire from commercial airlines at 60.

But in November last year, the International Civil Aviation Organization, the United Nations' aviation organization, raised the international retirement standard to age 65, provided the co-pilot is younger than age 60.

Blakey said she favors "international harmonization" to keep all pilots operating by the same basic rules.

Last year, Blakey assembled a group of airline, labor and medical experts to consider the retirement question, but the group failed to reach a consensus.

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