Ageing pilots, clever administrators

You gotta’ admire Marion Blakey, the FAA chief in the U.S. of A. She’s always been what the call a ‘steel magnolia’, all Southern charm beneath which lies a mind like a steel trap and a firm personality that takes no gruff from nobody.

She wended her way to the National Press Club in Washington the other day, and Airline Business was lucky enough to get a nearby seat to hear Blakey discuss the FAA’s plans to open up the mandatory airline pilot retirement age of 60 to debate and comment with an eye to raising it to age 65 for pilots on the major US-flag carriers.

This has been a hotly debated issue in the States, with most portraying the Age 60 rule as unfair to a generation of pilots who are exercise freaks, pre-dawn joggers and who are like the rest of us, or most of the rest of us, are living longer and healthier. All of which would seem to have near universal acceptance, except by the major pilot union, ALPA. ALPA, which represents about 60,000 pilots at almost every major airline (except American Airlines) opposed any rule change, arguing safety but in reality fearing that the adding five years to pilot careers would upset the apple cart for younger members who make sacrifices early in their ‘back-loaded’ career so they can get promotions over to the left seat and higher paying jobs.

The airlines had been wary since adding five years to what is often a career of just 25 years does weird stuff to actuarial tables and would probably raise the pilot salary ceiling even higher, though they didn’t fight it the way ALPA did. (ALPA actually reversed its position on the issue a few years back after serious internal debate).

An industry panel that was supposed to tell Blakey if it was a good idea to raise the retirement age broke down in a stalemate late last year, sending her not a recommendation but study. So for Blakey, now in the final year of a fixed five-year term, it was risky to make any decision. To come out for raising it would seem to be a brave decision, but here she had political cover; after all the advisory committee punted, giving Blakey no political cover, one way or the other.

She could however find justification in the ICAO position. “I’m a big fan of international co-operation and we’re going to do what ICAO recommends”, she told the Press Club. When people asked about individual waivers, about retroactivity or about the guys who will be caught in the gap during the year of two of debate that is bound to follow, Blakey’s response was the same: “we’re following ICAO”. Discretion is after all a part of valour. Read the advisory committee’s pros and cons and the FAA’s reasoning:, search for docket 26139.

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