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Pilots Want to Fly Further, For Longer

Pilots are pushing to raise the mandatory retirement age for commercial US pilots from 65 to 67. The Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) currently has a cap on the maximum working age of a pilot, yet this set age is entirely arbitrary rather than scientifically based. Therefore, each year, thousands of capable pilots are being forced into retirement whilst the number of pilots simultaneously decreases drastically below demand.

In July, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to pass legislation that would raise the mandatory commercial pilot retirement age to 67, 351-69. Senate is now set to consider the bill.

Increasing the mandatory retirement age for pilots is not a new issue. In 2007, the government raised the retirement age for commercial airline pilots from 60 to 65 years. This decision stemmed from two aspects of society which are equally prevalent today: firstly, the prolonged life expectancy of the average American, and secondly, the grim economic circumstances that led to a pilot’s pension fund becoming insufficient for supporting an unemployed pilot throughout the remainder of their life.

Raising the retirement age is partly challenged by concerns about pilot capability and safety. These issues came to the fore after the 2009 crash of Colgan Air Flight 3407 near Cape Cod, resulting in the loss of 50 lives. The regulations for pilot training that were promptly instituted in the aftermath of the crash are still upheld in Washington, as of last month, and have been a point of contention throughout the aviation industry, even being directly blamed for the current pilot shortage.

However, as a condition of raising the redundancy age, pilots over 60 must undergo a medical assessment every 6 months to ensure that their mental states remain fit for flying. Moreover, older pilots must fly with a younger co-pilot during flights according to a mandate made by International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) in 2006. Therefore, pilots above 65 will meet the 1,500 hours of training required by the 2009 regulations and also be medically checked for safety, thus alleviating the pressure of the industry shortage.

5,000 pilots in the United States are expected to be forced to retire in the next two years, yet if this legislation passes through the Senate, capable and safe pilots would be able to continue flying whilst junior pilots build up the required hours of training.

With all of these measures already in place, it seems illogical to prevent experienced and capable pilots from working as soon as they reach the arbitrary age of 65 whilst the US commercial aviation industry suffers due to unprecedented pilot shortages.

Moreover, due to international aviation laws, pilots about 65 would be limited to domestic flights on smaller planes. Dave Forbes, a Delta pilot and advocate for increasing the pilot retirement age acknowledged this fact, explaining that “It’s not typically veteran widebody captains who are being hurt by having to retire at 65”, but rather, “longtime regional jet pilots who have not accumulated large retirement savings”. In raising the retirement age, older pilots can relieve the strain on the industry by continuing as mentors and also add to their individual pension savings.

Since no scientific evidence has been found to support the 65-year-old flight cap, why should pilots be forced out of an industry that they have dedicated their life to, without substantial pensions, just because they have reached an arbitrary age?

Forbes told Forbes magazine about his “frustration with the national leadership at ALPA”, adding that “it’s ageism to say that at age 65 I will become one of the most dangerous people in the sky... Doctors don’t say that”.

Ultimately, pilots like Forbes are pushing to raise the mandatory age of requirement with the option of retirement still available at any age. Increasing the flight cap from 65 to 67 lacks compelling scientific evidence of heightened risk. However, it does grant pilots the autonomy to continue with flying and building savings, and alleviate the dire industry shortage of American pilots.

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