A measure that overturns a near half-century old regulation limiting maximum pilot age to 60 has received unanimous approval from the US Congress and is expected to be signed in to law.
The so-called "Fair treatment for experienced pilots Act", which raises the mandatory retirement age for pilots to 65, was hastily created and approved by the House and Senate after it became clear that Federal Aviation Administration reauthorisation legislation containing similar pilot retirement language was unlikely to see final action this year.
The bill contains several stipulations. Pilots can serve in multi-crew Part 121 operations until reaching the age of 65, providing they renew their first-class medical certificate twice a year. Every six months airlines must evaluate the performance of each pilot aged over 60 "through a line check of such pilot".
Significantly, the legislation would not require airlines to re-employ pilots who retire before the date of the law's enactment. International flights from the USA will still require at least one pilot to be under age 60, following ICAO standards.
Current US law, put in place in 1959, limits both pilots' maximum age to 60. The FAA had planned to propose rulemaking in line with Internation Civil Aviation Organization protocol, but the agency cautioned that the process could take years.
Fast approval of the new bill from President Bush is expected. "It doesn't have any spending attached to it so we haven't heard anything from the FAA or the White House opposing," notes Democratic communications director for the House transportation committee Jim Berard.
US pilot groups, however, have had mixed reactions to the legislative action. Having fought to keep the current age-60 retirement in place, American Airlines' pilots union, the Allied Pilots Association, says: "The reality is no one knows what would happen with large numbers of 65-year-old pilots in the cockpits of modern commercial airliners operating in today's demanding environment."
The Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) previously opposed changes to the retirement age, but in May its executive board decided resources would be better spent protecting pilots' interests as new age rules were drafted. "ALPA has worked very hard from the beginning of this process to make sure that the recommendations of the executive board - which were intended to protect our pilots - were included in any age change," says ALPA president John Prater. "I am gratified to report to our members tonight that this legislation reflects the direction of the board."
Southwest Airlines' pilot group has also praised Congress for increasing the pilot retirement age. "Experience counts and this legislation will enhance safety by ensuring that we keep our most experienced pilots flying longer."