Tuesday, January 30, 2007

FAA proposes to end the 'Age 60 Rule'

Today marks the beginning of the end of the debate about the 'Age 60 Rule' in the United States.

The New York Times and other news outlets are reporting that Marion Blakey, head of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), will address the issue in a speech she is scheduled to give today. She is expected to announce that the FAA will review its rule requiring airline pilots to retire at age 60, now that the International Civil Aviation Organization has raised the age to 65.

The so-called Age 60 Rule has been in force for well over 40 years in the United States. Under the current rule [Title 14 CFR, Chapter I, Part 121.383(c)], individuals who have reached their 60th birthday are prohibited from from piloting commercial aircraft operating under FAR Part 121 -- that is, commercial airliners.

Last year, a panel was formed to investigate and debate the issue of whether to change the mandatory retirement age for airline pilots in the United States to 65 instead of 60. At the end of November, 2006, the committee was disbanded after its members announced that they had failed to reach a consensus on the issue. The New York Times summarizes:
... [The committee's] members, including airlines, pilots’ unions and other specialists, simply laid out the pros and cons. But the group did recommend that if a change was made, it should be prospective, meaning that pilots who had already been forced to retire would not be allowed back.

Committee members who favored the change argued that there was no medical rationale for setting the retirement age at 60, and that a pilot shortage was coming and could be alleviated by letting pilots work longer. Those opposed said that setting a new age would replace one arbitrary limit with another and that no changes had been offered that would maintain current safety levels.
Some have cited safety reasons for keeping the mandatory retirement age at 60. However a number of health and safety experts have noted that age, in and of itself, is not a good predictor of whether a pilot can still safely fly an airplane. For example, the Aerospace Medical Association published a position paper on the Age 60 Rule, concluding that "there is insufficient medical evidence to support restriction of pilot certification based on age alone."

In fact, citing safety as the primary issue in this debate is a smokescreen. The real issues for those who argue both for and against rescinding the Age 60 Rule are economic. Junior pilots want the 'old guys' to retire so that the younger ones can move on up in the seniority system and earn more money. Older pilots want to continue earning a paycheck until they're eligible to collect their pensions -- what pensions they have left to look forward to after so many cuts at so many carriers. Older, more senior pilots earn higher salaries than their more junior counterparts, so they are more expensive for airlines to retain.

A turning point in the debate came last year when the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) amended its rule, raising the mandatory retirement age for commercial air transport pilots in multi-pilot crews to 65, with the provision that one of the pilots is less than 60 years of age. That rule took effect on November 23, 2006.
As of that date, foreign airline pilots older than 60 are allowed to fly into and out of the U.S. under the ICAO mandate, although U.S. pilots cannot. Since 1959 the FAA has required that all U.S. pilots stop flying Part 121 airliners at age 60. Most other nations eventually adopted the same age for mandatory retirement.

As a member of ICAO, the FAA must allow foreign pilots past age 60 to continue to work and fly in U.S. airspace. Twelve senators sent a letter to FAA Administrator Marion Blakey urging her agency to adopt the ICAO standard.

"We hope you appreciate that a finding [by the ARC] that leads to a rule allowing foreign pilots to work and fly in the U.S. to age 65 without affording U.S. pilots the same privilege will not sit well with the American people and most members of Congress," the senators wrote. [Aviation International News, Dec. 2006]
Since the new ICAO rule went into effect, we have had a situation in which pilots over the age of 60 flying aircraft operated by international carriers were allowed to fly in U.S. airspace, while their counterparts flying for U.S. carriers could not. Clearly, the time has come for the FAA to adopt the new ICAO standard.


How's this for timing: I was just about to publish the above post when the FAA's press release, titled FAA to Propose Pilot Retirement Age Change, appeared in my email. For the record, here's the text:
WASHINGTON, D.C. — Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Administrator Marion C. Blakey today announced that the FAA will propose to raise the mandatory retirement age for U.S. commercial pilots from 60 to 65. Speaking before pilots and aviation experts at the National Press Club, Blakey said that the agency plans to propose adopting the new International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) standard that allows one pilot to be up to age 65 provided the other pilot is under age 60.

The FAA plans to issue a formal Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) later this year and will publish a final rule after careful consideration of all public comments, as required by law.

“A pilot’s experience counts — it’s an added margin of safety,” said Blakey. “Foreign airlines have demonstrated that experienced pilots in good health can fly beyond age 60 without compromising safety.”

On September 27, 2006, Administrator Blakey established a group of airline, labor and medical experts to recommend whether the United States should adopt the new ICAO standard and determine what actions would be necessary if the FAA were to change its rule. The Age 60 Aviation Rulemaking Committee (ARC) did not reach a consensus recommendation but did provide detailed insight and analysis that will be helpful as the FAA develops a rule.

Since 1959, the FAA has required that all U.S. pilots stop flying commercial airplanes at age 60. In November 2006, ICAO, the United Nations’ aviation organization, increased the upper age limit for pilots to age 65, provided that the other pilot is under age 60.

The November 29, 2006 Age 60 ARC report, appendices, and public comments are available online at http://dms.dot.gov, docket number 26139.

UPDATE: If you'd like to read exactly what Marion Blakey said about the Age 60 Rule today, here's the link to the text of her speech to the National Press Club: Experience Counts - Marion Blakey, FAA