FAA to Raise Retirement Age for Pilots

By Del Quentin Wilber
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 31, 2007

It was an intense and emotional fight that involved national and international politics, labor disputes, economic struggles and medical research -- all over whether airline pilots can continue to fly five years past the mandatory retirement age of 60.

Federal Aviation Administration chief Marion C. Blakey attempted to close a chapter of the battle yesterday by announcing that she intends to change the rule and allow pilots to continue flying until age 65. The change will take effect within about two years, officials said.

In a speech at the National Press Club, Blakey acknowledged the bitter fight that pitted older pilots against younger ones, and some airlines against one another. "I understand that this is an issue that strikes a real chord and elicits very strong emotions on both sides," she said.

Blakey made the change because, she said, the old rule eliminated years of experience. Also, she said, there was no medical evidence to support mandating the younger retirement age, and international groups have increased the age to 65. That means U.S. pilots who work for foreign airlines are allowed to fly into and out of the United States until they turn 65, she said.

But her decision was an easy way to dump a touchy issue as she faces other looming fights. Blakey is expected to soon begin a slog to win approval for what promises to be a contentious plan to finance the FAA. She also faces a Congress controlled by Democrats who are sympathetic to her feisty controllers' union. Few members of Congress have supported the current rule, making it unlikely that her change would draw much criticism.

"It was easier to just get rid of this issue, so she could move onto another one," said an airline executive who spoke on the condition of anonymity because his carrier does not permit him to speak about the issue publicly.

There were no clear-cut sides in the debate, also making it easier for Blakey to make the change.

For example, the battle pitted pilots against pilots.

The Airline Pilots Association, the largest pilots' union, fought the mandatory retirement age until the early 1980s -- about the time that government deregulated airlines and a flood of young pilots hit the market.

Because everything in a pilot's life is affected by seniority -- better shifts, better planes and better routes come with more experience -- the younger pilots did not want many of the older ones to keep flying. In 2004, a union survey showed that a majority of its pilots still supported the rule. Union officials maintain that for safety reasons they have backed retirement at age 60.

Meanwhile, in recent years, older pilots boosted their lobbying efforts to raise the age as they faced uncertain retirements after taking pay and benefit cuts from struggling airlines. Federal officials received more than 4,000 comments last year from pilots and others supporting the change.

Air carriers were divided on the change or remained on the sidelines, allowing their unions and older pilots to slug it out. Some airline executives saw the change as a way to save money on training costs by retaining experienced pilots. Others worried about paying older pilots with higher salaries and about how to deal with scheduling headaches. Under the proposal, if one pilot is older than 60, the other pilot in the cockpit must be younger than 60.

Still, Blakey did not side with all older pilots. She said she will not grant waivers for pilots who must retire at age 60 before the rule changes.

"I'm toast," said Jim Gorman, a 59-year-old pilot with Southwest Airlines who has just a few weeks left at the carrier. "I'm glad the change will eventually help somebody, but I'd be happier if it helped me."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company