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This Delta Pilot Leader Says His Union Has It Wrong On Age 65

A leader of the Delta Air LinesDAL 0.0% chapter of the Air Line Pilots Association is opposing his powerful union and backing an increase in the pilot retirement age to 67.

The age is currently 65, but an effort to raise it is one of dozens of struggles over various measures that are part of the Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill that is making its way through Congress.

ALPA is the world’s largest pilots’ union, with 74,000 members at 42 airlines in the U.S. and Canada. Delta and United are its biggest members. Dave Forbes is the Minneapolis captain representative on Delta’s master executive council.

“It’s ageism to say that at age 65 I will become one of the most dangerous people in the sky,” said Forbes, a 62-year-old Airbus A330 captain. “Doctors don’t say that. The sad thing is that in our union, we’re not representing everybody. We have taken a political stance based on the demographics,” where younger pilots outnumber older pilots.

“I’m frustrated with ALPA, frustrated with the national leadership at ALPA,” Forbes said. “They think we’re all supposed to tow the line like good little soldiers. But if I were president of ALPA, I would make sure there was science behind an age-based mandatory retirement. And since there isn’t, I would limit my remarks.”

ALPA said in an email that it “is a democratic organization, and our pilots elect those who make policy for the union. The retirement age policy was developed by ALPA’s locally-elected representatives and approved unanimously by our board of directors, working on behalf of their pilots.”

Forbes began his career at Hawaiian Airlines in 1986. He moved to Northwest in 1989: Northwest merged with Delta in 2008. In 2019 Forbes decided to run for captain rep because, “I wanted to give back at the end of my career. I’ve found it incredibly rewarding, at the local level, to be helping pilots, which is what the union is supposed to do.”

Forbes estimates that about a third of the 1,300 MSP pilots back his position on age 65. He acknowledged he is opposed by most younger members.

ALPA called a higher retirement age “a solution in search of a problem.” While pilots appear to be in short supply, ALPA says the number of pilots is sufficient, but pilot training presents a bottleneck that is very slowly being overcome.

The union said an increase to age 67 “has not been studied or vetted by aviation safety experts—those upon whom we all rely on to keep flying safe,” including the FAA and the Department of Transportation.

It noted the International Civil Aviation Organization, a United Nations agency that sets some international standards, took five years to study the issue before raising the age to 65.

“Raising the retirement age here while it remains at 65 internationally would put the U.S. in conflict with worldwide standards and disrupt U.S. airline global operations,” ALPA said. “Pilots 65 and above would be disqualified from every flight that operates outside U.S. airspace. This conflict will cause US airlines to run a two-tiered system.”

Forbes, however, said it is likely ICAO would quickly change it standards if the U.S. switched. Already, the retirement age for pilots in Japan is 68. He noted that pilots regularly get physicals, simulator training and flights with check airmen in the jump seat.

“ALPA’s position on this is ageist,” said Taylor Hulsey, spokesman for Rep. Troy Nehls (R-Texas), sponsor of an amendment raising the age to 67. “To say that once you turn 65, you’re magically incapable of flying and become a risk is insane. Raising the pilot age will provide temporary relief for the massive pilot shortage that our country is facing.”

A Washington lobbyist involved in aviation, who asked not to be named, said the reauthorization act is at a standstill with pilot training as a key unresolved issue. One issue is an FAA regulation that requires 1,500 hours of training for pilots. Currently, that can include 100 hours on a simulator, but one proposed amendment would push the number to 250 hours. Strong opposition is coming from families of victims of the 2009 Colgan Air crash. “Everything is landlocked, due to the Colgan families,” the lobbyist said.

ALPA opposes changes in pilot training requirements. ALPA’s board, including Forbes, approved its safety standards, including age 65 retirement, last year. Forbes acknowledged that he voted with the rest of the board. “No excuse,” he said. However, voting came during a busy week at the board meeting in Las Vegas and “the opposition to age 67 was a sub-paragraph of the safety section of the strategic plan, voted on by voice vote, with almost zero discussion,” Forbes said. “I voted to support the overall plan and didn’t realize that 67 opposition was going to end up being a cornerstone.”

If Forbes were to keep flying past 65, it would likely be as a lower-paid, narrowbody domestic captain. That’s fine, he said. It’s not typically veteran widebody captains like him who are being hurt by having to retire at 65, he said, but rather longtime regional jet pilots who moved recently to Delta narrowbodies and who have not accumulated large retirement savings. He wants to represent them.

Forbes’ term as captain rep ends in March 2024. He said he plans to seek re-election.

This article originally appeared on Forbes

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