Pilots over age 60 have an accident rate twice as high as pilots in their 50s, but are still better pilots than those in their 20s and 30s, The Office of Technology Assessment said in a report released yesterday.
The report, released without comment by the House Public Works and Transportation Committee, reaches no conclusion on whether to change the Federal Aviation Administration regulation forcing retirement at age 60 for pilots on major airlines. But it tends to give more comfort to the advocates of continued age-60 retirement than to its opponents.
Critics have attacked the age-60 retirement for many years, arguing that experienced, healthy pilots are being grounded and the traveling public is being denied the benefit of their skill.
Airline industry and labor spokesmen said yesterday they support the FAA. "While we understand age 60 is an arbitrary figure, we have seen no compelling evidence to change it," said William Jackman, a spokesman for the Air Transport Association. John Mazor, a spokesman for the Air Line Pilots Association, agreed, saying that there is "nothing conclusive" to show whether experience or age is more important after 60.
The OTA study is based on average accidents per 100,000 flight hours for all pilots with more than 1,000 hours of flight time. "Those pilots between ages 60 to 69 have an accident rate that is 2.1 times higher than the accident rate for 50- to 59-year-olds," the report said. "However, the same data show that the accident rate for the 60-69-year-old pilots is less than that for pilots in the 30-39-year-old and 20-29-year-old age groups."
Charts released with the report make it clear that when there is a wide disparity between experience and age, experience is more important. Pilots over 60 with more than 5,000 flight hours have a lower accident rate than pilots of all ages with 1,000 to 5,000 flight hours. But in all experience groups, the accident rate goes up after 60.
The FAA age-60 rule applies only to carriers that operate aircraft with more than 30 seats or payload capacities of at least 7,500 pounds. There is no mandatory retirement for pilots in small commuter-only operations, air taxis, corporate operations or pleasure flying.
The OTA, an agency of Congress, said there is almost no chance that a commercial airline crash would result from a pilot of any age suffering sudden incapacitation -- such as a heart attack -- partly because a copilot and sometimes a flight engineer are always present on the flight deck.
The agency said pilot-error accidents are almost always based on "mental error rather than the pilot's incapacitation or impairment."
"The data demonstrating an increase in accident rates in the over-60 age group compared to the 50-59-year-old group suggest that the increase. . . may be due to subtle age-related deterioration in cognitive function," the report said.
The report enumerated new tests that could be included in FAA Class I and Class II medical certificates -- those requiring the most stringent medical exams. But it said that because sudden impairment has not been a factor in airline accidents, "more exacting medical examinations are unlikely to have a substantial efffect on accident rates." The report said medical science cannot now predict with certainty the medical conditions that affect pilot performance.
Likewise, new neuropsychological tests must be developed to measure the loss of mental functions after 60 that would classify pilots as "high risk," the report said. "These pilots cannot be identified at this time," the OTA said.