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Are pilots really too old to fly at age 60?

Pressure is building to reconsider the FAA's retirement rule, which critics call outdated and based on flawed studies.

Published December 28, 2004

Many airline passengers like to see gray hair in the cockpit. It looks like the pilot is a seasoned pro who could better handle stormy weather or a tricky landing.

But gray hair hasn't been so popular with the Federal Aviation Administration. For more than 40 years, the government has been adamant that airline pilots retire by their 60th birthday. The FAA says that after that, skills deteriorate and accident rates go up.

Now, pressure is building on Capitol Hill - and in many cockpits - to raise the retirement age.

Rep. John Mica, the chairman of the House Aviation Subcommittee, said advances in health care mean that pilot skills don't deteriorate when they turn 60. "When it comes to flying, older and more experienced is better," said Mica. He plans to hold hearings on the controversial rule.

Some pilots complain that 60 is an arbitrary age and that the FAA is relying on flawed studies to support the retirement rule. The Air Line Pilots Association, the world's largest pilot union, is reconsidering its long-held support for the rule.

The debate boils down to a simple but elusive question: How old is too old?

History of the rule

When it was created, the rule was more about money than safety.

In the late 1950s, airlines were facing huge costs to train pilots for the new wave of jet planes, including the Boeing 707 and Douglas DC-8. Wanting to reduce costs, American Airlines president C.R. Smith got in a dispute with his pilots over American's mandatory retirement age of 60.

Smith turned to an old friend with clout. He wrote to Elwood "Pete" Quesada, administrator of the newly formed Federal Aviation Agency, saying the government should consider a "suitable age for retirement."

The FAA, however, decided it couldn't use Smith's complaint to justify a mandatory retirement rule, said Dr. Robin Wilkening, an occupational medicine specialist who wrote about the rule in Aviation, Space and Environmental Medicine .

Instead, the agency relied on medical studies about how aging affected the body and mind. But the studies looked at all people, not just pilots, or how growing older eroded their skills.

A Senate report several years ago said the rule was adopted "without the benefit of medical or scientific studies and without public comment."

"Sound judgment'

Nobody disputes that pilots, like drivers, lose skills as they age. The debate is over when that happens and how to identify it.

Most studies have focused on the accident rates for pilots as they age. But the studies have been contradictory.

Some support the age 60 rule. They indicate older pilots are more likely to have accidents. One by the FAA showed a "U-shaped curve," with higher accident rates for pilots in their 20s, then a low rate for middle ages, and higher rates for older pilots.

But critics say the analysis was flawed. They say it unfairly compared the ages because the safest pilot group - those flying big commercial jets - was forced to retire at 60.

Other studies do not support the rule.

One in 1993 found no increase in accident rates for older airline pilots. The study also looked at accidents by private pilots and concluded the rate for those age 60 to 64 was about the same as pilots age 55 to 59. There was only "a hint" the rate increased for pilots older than 63.

That provided ammunition to groups that wanted to raise the retirement age. But after receiving 4,000 public comments and holding two days of hearings on the study, the FAA decided it lacked enough new facts to raise the age.

A central idea behind the age 60 rule is the belief that an older pilot loses flying skills or is more likely to become incapacitated while flying.

But advocates of an older retirement age say the FAA's strict safety rules leave little chance that incapacitation would cause a crash.

"There are two pilots on board for the same reason we have two engines on the plane and two types of every (critical) system," said Stan Sutterfield, a Southwest Airlines captain and chairman of the advocacy group Airline Pilots Against Age Discrimination.

Piloting a big jet requires "management skills and sound judgment," Southwest Airlines Capt. Joseph Eichelkraut told a Senate committee in September. "These are talents that I have found typically come with age and experience."

Pilots tend to be healthier than the general population, Wilkening said. Their physical and mental fitness gets more scrutiny than almost any other professionals: twice-annual physicals for captains, annual EKGs starting at 40, aircraft simulator tests and check rides each year.

"There's no reason to fear that older pilots in the cockpit put passengers at risk if they have passed the requisite medical examinations and proved themselves in the simulator," said Wilkening.

"It's worth looking at'

The FAA has heard many complaints over the years but is sticking by the rule. The agency says 60 remains the best estimate of when a decline in pilots' health and cognitive skills may jeopardize safety.

"It is well-demonstrated that the system we are using works," said FAA spokesman Paul Turk. "The FAA has not found any reason, based on the available research and its interpretations, to change the existing standards."

FAA Administrator Marion Blakey said last week there is no pressure to make a change.

She proposed raising the retirement age of air traffic controllers from 56 to as high as 61 because of a looming shortage of controllers. But there's no such problem with pilots.

Still, the pressure might come from Congress. Key Senators and House members say the rule is outdated.

"I think it's worth looking at," said Mica, a Republican from Winter Park who plans to hold hearings next year. "People live longer. They are healthier because of medications."

Sen. Elizabeth Dole, a former transportation secretary, said "healthy and capable" pilots are being grounded because of the rule.

"We live in a world where medical technology has helped to prolong our lifespan and serve as a modern-day fountain of youth," said Dole, who, along with others, has suggested more frequent medical exams for older pilots.

Last year the Senate defeated a bill to raise the age to 65. A smaller increase - or one requiring more medical tests of older pilots - might fare better.

The Air Line Pilots Association has supported the rule on safety grounds. But during the boom years for airlines, the rule was also a financial boost for many members. Young pilots were anxious to advance through seniority into bigger, higher-paying jets. Many senior captains looked forward to retiring at 60 with a big pension.

That is changing. Today's financially ailing airlines are cutting pilot salaries and dumping or drastically cutting pension plans. Many pilots want to work past 60 to build up their nest eggs.

Union leaders want to reconsider their stance and will poll members in 2005.

John Cox, a St. Petersburg aviation safety consultant, said the government should be cautious about changing the rule. He said supporters of the change must prove that it will enhance safety.

"The burden of proof is with the change, not with the status quo," said Cox, a former airline pilot. "It's not enough to say it's a bad idea."

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