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Focus: US airline pilots fight their unions to increase retirement age

Aug 22 (Reuters) - Bo Ellis has been a devoted member of the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) for nearly four decades, but the 64-year-old is waging a campaign against the union to extend his flying career.


ALPA and other pilot unions oppose a bill in the U.S. Congress that seeks to raise the retirement age for commercial airline pilots to 67 from 65, arguing it will "introduce new risk" into the aviation system as no safety agency has studied its implications.


The measure, however, is estimated to provide 5,000 pilots like Ellis the option to continue working over the next two years, according to the Regional Airline Association (RAA).

Increasing the age limit by two years would also align pilot retirement with the minimum federal retirement age, allowing them to receive full social security benefits.

Ellis, a head pilot at a U.S. carrier, said senior pilots are "by far much safer" due to experience, accusing ALPA of "politicizing" safety.


"My own union is being discriminatory against me," he said.


PILOTS LOBBY LAWMAKERS

Ellis has co-founded a coalition of thousands of pilots at carriers including Delta (DAL.N), United (UAL.O), American (AAL.O) and Southwest Airlines (LUV.N) to lobby for the legislation and has contacted over 200 lawmakers.


In a statement, ALPA said it "carefully" considered and its elected representatives voted "unanimously" last October to reaffirm its opposition to an "arbitrary change" in the retirement age.


"America did not establish the aviation safety gold standard by cutting corners when making significant changes to our complex, global aviation system," ALPA said.


Rick Redfern, a Mesa Air (MESA.O) pilot who was present at ALPA's October meeting, said the union's board merely approved its strategic plan which contains its position on age. But the specific question of increasing the retirement age to 67 was never brought to the floor for a vote. Two other pilots, present at the meeting, confirmed Redfern's account.


Internal emails reviewed by Reuters and interviews with a dozen pilots show members are divided over the age issue. Some of the pilots asked not to have their employers identified due to the risk of losing their jobs.


In previously unreported developments, a proposal by Mesa pilots seeking a vote on the age limit is expected to be discussed at ALPA's national executive council in September, said Redfern.


ALPA needs to "get the pulse of the community," said Redfern, an ALPA representative for MESA pilots.


Similarly, ALPA's unit at United Airlines is polling pilots on the issue for the first time in 16 years.


"We are fully aware of the passion raised over the issue," ALPA said in an Aug. 3 memo to United pilots that was seen by Reuters.


The measure, expected to be taken up by the U.S. Senate in September after its approval in the House of Representatives last month, can mitigate staffing gaps at carriers that have led to a reduction in air service to more than 300 U.S. airports.


"It will provide some much-needed relief," said airline stocks analyst Savanthi Syth of Raymond James.


JUNIOR VERSUS SENIOR PILOTS

All airline pilots are required to pass medical tests every six months and those older than 40 must undergo ECG heart screening annually. Additionally, all pilots have their skills regularly evaluated in flight simulators to ensure proficiency.


Advocates of the measure said advancements in medical science have led to a better understanding of pilot incapacitation. They point to Canada, Japan and Australia, countries with either higher or no age limit for pilots.


Also, pilots are allowed to fly corporate and charter jets beyond the age of 65.

Take Dan Carr, a former Mesa captain who turned 66 this month and flies business jets. If he was allowed to retire at 67, Carr said he would have never left Mesa.


"I feel like I'm at the pinnacle of my ability," he said.


Some older pilots want to work longer to benefit from salary increases after enduring economic losses in the coronavirus pandemic during 2020-2021 and various airline bankruptcies.


They accused union leaders of pandering to junior pilots, who outnumber senior aviators and fear a higher retirement age would hurt their career progression.


"This is a coup by junior pilots against senior pilots," said Allen Baker, who retired as a United Airlines pilot in June.


ALPA said its stand on age is the result of a "democratic process" and reflects "the will" of its members.


Baker, 65, shared an email with Reuters which he wrote to ALPA leadership at United weeks before his retirement, complaining about a "slander campaign" by junior pilots against senior members like him.


Dennis Tajer, a spokesman for American Airlines pilots union, said pilots seeking higher retirement age want to keep earning longer.


DIVIDED AIRLINES

ALPA said changes to aviation policy should not be done "in the backrooms of Congress or at the behest of moneyed special interests." It has warned the move could cause airline scheduling and pilot training issues, and require reopening pilot contracts as current international rules would still prevent pilots older than 65 from flying internationally.


In an interview, ALPA head Jason Ambrosi said the measure would drive up airline costs and ticket prices for customers. He, however, did not provide any specific data to back his argument.


Like pilots, airlines are also split. Frontier Airlines (ULCC.O) CEO Barry Biffle said pilots should be allowed to fly as long as they clear their medical tests, joining the global airline trade group, International Air Transport Association and the RAA, in supporting the legislation.

But United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby has said lifting the retirement age would not solve the pilot shortage. Last year, he said 36% of the company's pilots aged 64 were out on sick, long-term, or short-term medical leave.


Mesa's CEO Jonathan Ornstein said he would love to have pilots like former Mesa employee Carr fly longer. The airline's operations are suffering as it has lost 37% of its captains due to retirement and attrition since early 2022.


"If the regulations permitted, I'd take them all back," he said.


This article first appeared on Reuters.

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