Flight Delays, High Fares Prompt Rethink of Pilot Retirement Age

  • Airlines struggle with flight scheduling disruptions
  • Lawmakers weigh options to increase number of pilots

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Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) is planning to introduce a bill to increase the retirement age for pilots, a move backed by some aviation groups facing labor challenges.

Graham said his bill would extend pilots’ mandatory retirement age by “a couple of years.” Lawmakers are honing in on the pilot shortage, holding hearings and considering solutions as airlines increasingly delay and cancel flights, while also jacking up fares.

Airlines have responded by altering their training programs and even substituting buses for planes. Roughly 14,500 pilots will need to be hired annually until 2030 to meet demand, the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects.

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“We are working on it now,” Graham said of his bill Wednesday. “You obviously got to pass a physical so you got to be physically fit, but there is no reason not to extend it a couple years.”

The pilot retirement age was last boosted by lawmakers in 2007 to 65 from 60. Opponents argued then that increasing the age of retirement would be a safety risk.

Proposals to address the pilot shortage are likely to draw more attention as lawmakers start work on the next Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill. Panels in the Senate and House both held hearings last week on aviation workforce issues. The FAA’s authorization expires at the end of September 2023.

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“As this committee looks forward to reauthorizing the Federal Aviation Administration next year, we will consider opportunities to strengthen the pipeline, support opportunities to diversify the workforce and consider whether we need to refine existing programs such as the FAA aviation workforce development program,” Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), chair of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee’s aviation panel, said last week.

Industry officials have pitched different ways for lawmakers to aid the shortage of workers. Jonathan Ornstein, chairman and CEO of Mesa Air Group Inc., proposed several recommendations, including allowing qualified foreign pilots to enter the US workforce more easily and raising the maximum pilot age to 68, even temporarily.

Dana Donati, CEO of United Aviate Academy, a pilot training program, said she wants more funding for aviation workforce development grants, which were included in the 2018 FAA reauthorization. She also supports legislation to increase loan amounts and payment deferral for prospective pilots. The measure, called the Flight Education Access Act, has yet to be introduced.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg called the pilot shortage, and resulting flight cancellations, “a national issue” at a hearing earlier this month. “There won’t be a quick fix, but we’ve got to work on shoring up that domestic aviation workforce,” he said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Lillianna Byington in Washington at lbyington@bloombergindustry.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Sarah Babbage at sbabbage@bgov.com; Robin Meszoly at rmeszoly@bgov.com

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