US pilot retirement debate stalls at 60

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FAA finally poised to decide in face of divided opinion

The US air transport pilot (ATP) upper age limit of 60 seems unlikely to change for up to five years if Federal Aviation Administration head Marion Blakey takes the advice of an Aviation Rulemaking Committee (ARC) report. Blakey was looking for a recommendation from the ARC on whether to harmonise with the recent hike in the International Civil Aviation Organisation standard maximum pilot age from 60 to 65, but has been presented with the opposite opinions of two divided camps within the committee.

Blakey says she will make a decision within "weeks". In the USA ATPs must retire at 60, no matter whether they are captains or co-pilots, whereas the ICAO standard since 23 November 2006 has been that ATPs may fly until 65 either as captain or first officer providing the other pilot in the crew is 60 or less.

The one area in which there seemed to be little dissent between the opposed ARC camps was that raising the pilot age would be administratively and legally difficult for airlines during the transition period. The reports recommends: "Any change to the age 60 rule should be prospective. If preventing [retired pilot] reinstatement is outside the scope of the administrator's authority, federal legislation may be required to protect companies and unions from lawsuits that may arise challenging the prospective nature of the change, such as reinstatement of employment, seniority, and/or crew position."

For and against 65

The Aviation Rulemaking Committee is divided over whether the US air transport pilot maximum age should rise to 65. Arguments against include:

  • "Before rulemaking... the FAA should conduct a safety risk assessment with... airline, pilot, and aeromedical representatives."
  • "The age 60 rule remains a contentious issue for the commercial aviation industry. It has broad-reaching implications for individual pilots and the companies that employ them."

Arguments in favour include:

  • "Medical and ageing experts agree there is no medical rationale for the age 60 rule."
  • "The policy should be based on operational rather than medical considerations, as ageing is not an illness."
  • "Older pilots are at greater risk because of an increased incidence of heart disease or stroke, [but for] younger pilots there are increased risks for incapacitating illnesses such as bleeding peptic ulcer disease or migraine headaches."
  • "There has never been a US air carrier accident assigned to medical causes. Incidents have occurred in flight that threatened safety, but these are rare and, when they occur, the illness is almost always not incapacitating. Given this, and the fact there are two pilots... the risk is vanishingly small." 

The report makes it clear a great deal of the opposition to an age 65 limit is based on the administrative inconvenience of the transition, reporting that "one chief medical officer responded that a system without an age limit would be an 'administrative nightmare'".

Of just over 5,500 "unique commenters" who submitted evidence to the ARC, 4,000 favoured the change and 1,500 opposed it.

Eventual change seems probable because the US Aerospace Medical Association has told the ARC that there is no statistical evidence in the USA or overseas that pilot age adversely affects airline safety.