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A battle over increasing the mandatory retirement age for commercial airline pilots is building in Congress, as a wave of retirements loom and carriers brace for another busy season of post-pandemic travel.
As many as 5,000 commercial pilots will be forced to leave their jobs when they hit the mandatory retirement age of 65 in the next two years, adding to a shortage projected to steadily increase. Some pilots and groups representing regional and low-cost airlines want Congress to change the retirement age to 67 as part of its reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration this year.
A similar proposal pushed by Republicans didn’t gain traction in the last Congress, but the bill (S. 893) reintroduced in the Senate now has bipartisan support, a change supporters say aids its chances. They also note there isn’t the same restriction for pilots of private or charter planes.
“As a pilot myself—way above the 67 age—we’re still able to fly,” said 75-year-old Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who joined this year in backing the legislation. “We can still make pretty good decisions.”
The debate pits pilots’ unions wary of expanding their ranks with older, usually higher paid, members against regional and rural airports that were crushed by the pandemic and still haven’t regained staff and traffic they lost.
It also comes as Americans prepare for another summer travel season after the last one magnified complaints and concerns about air travel. More than 33,000 flights were canceled in 2022, nearly 10 times more than the year before and the highest percentage since 2014, and almost a fifth of all flights were delayed, with airlines most often cited as the cause.
Opponents say raising the retirement age, which last increased to 65 from 60 in 2007, is a short-term fix to a long-term challenge, and one that could backfire.
“Changing the retirement age is not even a numbing shot to this problem,” Dennis Tajer, Allied Pilots Association spokesman and pilot, said. “It’s actually the opposite and will cause even more complications going forward.”
Like older workers in other fields, many pilots opted to retire when the pandemic brought travel to a halt. Training also slowed during that stretch, another factor contributing to federal projections of an average of 18,100 pilot openings a year over the next decade.
About three-quarters of the commercial airports haven’t returned to full service, the Rally for Air Service Coalition — a group of airports, airlines, businesses and chambers of commerce who “rely on local air service connectivity” — told lawmakers last month.
But the pinch has been felt most acutely at smaller airports. Rural areas are more affected by the pilot shortage since they are the first routes to get cut, Manchin said at a Senate hearing.
Hundreds of planes owned by regional airlines sit parked and idle, while former commercial pilots transition to jobs flying charter planes or business aviation once they hit the retirement age, said Drew Jacoby Lemos, vice president of government and external affairs at the Regional Airline Association.
“We’ve certainly heard from pilots who are approaching the age 65 retirement and they want to continue flying,” he said.
A group of pilots are pushing lawmakers to boost the age. Dave Scholl, an Air Force veteran who has spent three decades in the cockpit for a major carrier, said he grew up wanting to fly, and passing the legislation would allow him “to continue my dream.”
Scholl said he works hard to stay in shape and, in addition to his FAA medical exams, he gets his own extensive physicals. It doesn’t make sense that pilots are deemed fit to fly for decades but suddenly become “a threat to mankind” on their 65th birthday, he said.
The issue feels like age discrimination at its core, Scholl said. “Is it right to arbitrarily set a date?” he asked.
Proponents of the bill, who argue the proposal would help quickly bolster staff and avoid cancellations, point to other countries with higher age limits for pilots, including Japan, which raised its ceiling past 65 because of staffing shortages.
A Failed Pipeline
The major pilot unions say increasing the retirement age would increase safety concerns, add to scheduling complications, and doesn’t require airline leaders to address a key factor—they have a backlog in training for younger pilots.
“They are behind in ensuring that they have the pipeline for pilots cleared through for this recovery, which they were ill-prepared for,” said Tajer. Lawmakers and airlines should be looking toward long-term solutions to get pilots high-quality training quickly and help with the financial strain of that process, he said.
Jason Ambrosi, president of the Air Line Pilots Association, which represents more than 67,000 members, said the proposal would “introduce unnecessary risks to passengers and crew alike.”
Unions cite research from the European Union Aviation Safety Agency that recommended keeping the current retirement age because it found pilots over 65 require more risk-mitigation measures and tests.
They also say the current international age limit, 65, complicates any change to US policy, because pilots over that age wouldn’t be able to continue on international flights. They argue that it would then displace more junior pilots and could require training for older pilots transitioning to different routes.
Some airlines haven’t been on board with a change, either. United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby has acknowledged there aren’t enough pilots, but said last year that raising the retirement age wasn’t the solution because more than a third of the company’s 64-year-old pilots are out sick on a given day.
The International Civil Aviation Organization, which sets standards, has a 65 age limit for multipilot operations. The International Air Transport Association, a trade group for airlines, recently asked the ICAO to reevaluate that limit though, pointing to an increased life expectancy and a decrease in the likelihood of sudden pilot incapacitation as well as pilot requirements to pass “rigorous medical and simulator assessments.”
‘Happy to Negotiate’
Lawmakers and others who support the increase say similar concerns were raised in 2007, when the US retirement age was set at 65, and assert that five-year increase didn’t compromise safety. Even after hiking the age, the pilots would need to maintain a first-class medical certification, subject to renewal every six months, as well as continued qualification programs.
Workforce woes in the aviation sector will likely be a key focus of the reauthorization debate, amid increased demand for pilots, air traffic controllers and mechanics. The divisiveness of the pilot retirement age hike will complicate whether it makes the cut.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), lead sponsor of the bill, said he was hopeful the proposal advances. A lack of personnel is a major cause for the air delays that frustrate travelers, Graham said.
“Lately, if your plane actually leaves on time, you feel like you won the lottery,” he said when he introduced the legislation.
Senators have pressed Biden officials on the retirement age issue at recent hearings. Billy Nolen, acting head of the FAA, said it was a decision for Congress, while Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said any variance with ICAO’s age limit could create international issues and the department would look to data to inform pilot workforce decisions.
Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), chair of the Commerce subcommittee overseeing aviation and a pilot herself, said one of the best ways to deal with the workforce shortage is to increase money for pilot training. But she also said she wasn’t opposed to considering the retirement age proposal as long as all the medical concerns can be met, adding that she’d be “happy to negotiate and talk about it.”
The senators supporting the proposal will need to win over hesitant ones as unions fan out against the bill.
Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), chair of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, said she was “good with where we are right now” with the retirement age, pointing to a need to build the pipeline of pilots and aid with training costs. Cantwell said her committee would use the current recess to gather ideas for what members want in the FAA bill.
A companion bill (H.R. 1761) in the Republican-controlled House has just GOP members as cosponsors. But Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas), who introduced the bill last year and cosponsored this year’s version, said he believed the odds of getting it passed had improved.
“I feel pretty good this year that we’re moving in the right direction,” he said.
To contact the reporter on this story: Lillianna Byington in Washington at email@example.com