Proposal to Raise Pilot Retirement Age Pulls Away From the Gate

The pilot retirement age may soon rise to 67 under pending legislation, adding another two years to their careers. Not everyone is jumping for joy about that – certainly not the majority of pilots in the various pilots’ unions.

The proposed Let Experienced Pilots Fly (LEPF) Act passed its first hurdle when the bill, sponsored by Rep. Troy E. Nehls (R-Texas), cleared the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee in June. The LEPF Act was filed as an amendment to the Federal Aviation Administration Reauthorization Act, which sailed through and is likely to pass the full House of Representatives with little debate. It’s the kind of must-pass legislation that should also clear the Senate, although that body might engage in further debate about this particular provision.

Regardless of what’s happening on Capitol Hill, though, the LEPF Act has sparked no end to debate within the commercial flying community.

The case in favor of raising the age of pilot retirement

The proximate cause of this dispute is the deluge of pilots who retired – or were forced into retirement – during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic. We’re still feeling it. CBS News is calling our current season “the summer of travel hell.” And well it might, with more than 2,800 canceled flights over Memorial Day weekend and more than 800 canceled flights on a random Monday in June. This just in: There were at least 5,600 cancellations over the July 4th weekend.

Not all of this has to do with the pilot shortage, but that does seem to be the easiest part to address through legislation – you can’t pass a law to alleviate problematic weather – and the proposed policy has a lot of fans. Among them are the Association of Mature American Citizens, a conservative-leaning non-profit.

“There are high standards to bring new pilots into the industry and onto the flight deck, and there is an age limit prematurely removing experienced pilots from the flight deck at the age of 65. These together reduce the pool of pilots able to staff airlines and their routes. This reduced staffing manifests as cancelled flights and cancelled routes,” AMAC President Bob Carlstrom wrote in an open letter to the bill’s sponsors. “The mandatory retirement age … is arbitrary and unsubstantiated. There is no data indicating a causal link that pilots above age 65 introduce an unmitigable safety of flight risk.”

Also, the Regional Airline Association is on board.

“A growing pilot shortage and an even more acute shortage of airline captains – a byproduct of letting the pilot shortage worsen over time – has devastated small community air service across the United States,” said RAA CEO Faye Malarkey Black. “Already, 324 airports have lost an average of one-third of their air service and 53 airports have lost more than half of their air service. Fourteen airports have lost all flights.”

Black goes on to excoriate the “wrongheaded age discrimination against healthy pilots, who are sidelined at the peak of their experience and earnings potential two years ahead of their full Social Security retirement age.”

The case opposed to raising the pilot retirement age

The anti-LEPF Act opposition is led by the Air Line Pilots Association, the collective bargaining agent for 74,000 U.S. and Canadian pilots. ALPA’s major points are:

  • Raising the mandatory retirement age won’t actually increase the supply of pilots.
  • Pilots over age 65 will still be prohibited from flying international routes and will have to be retrained on smaller aircraft, aggravating already overwhelmed training facilities.
  • There are lots of hidden costs inherent in employing older pilots, including more pay for time not flown and increased expenses related to litigation and further contract negotiation.
  • Adding two years to the careers of senior pilots would disrupt the career trajectories of junior pilots and first officers.

While some might bring up safety as a concern, the law requires all pilots to maintain their first-class medical certification.

ALPA points to statistics that there are already enough pilots to meet demand, according to the FAA and Labor Department. That is not beyond contention, though. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that 14,700 pilots will need to be hired by the end of the decade to keep pace with demand. According to the non-partisan Government Accountability Office, the industry is on track to get there with the current retirement age intact, but just barely. Another disruption of similar scale to the pandemic could put the airlines well behind.

While one can take issue with any of ALPA’s bullets, the union makes one unassailable point: There’s a mismatch between the policy and the problem it’s supposed to solve. Yes, there really is a pilot shortage, but for the rural routes, not the high-profile ones that the 65+ crowd would likely be bidding on. It is far from certain.

“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,” according to a recent Bloomberg article. “

While there ought to be a follow-on effect of less-senior pilots being pressed into those less-desirable routes, the situation is complicated by the limited volume of newly trained flight deck personnel, the article reports. When demand exceeds supply, it’s these rural and regional routes that get discontinued first.

The players

Congressman Nehls, the LEPF bill’s sponsor, whose Houston-area district draws a C-shape from Clear Creek Bayou to Matagorda Bay, is a rare breed in Washington. On the one hand, he has impeccable conservative credentials; he’s a Freedom Caucus member who wrote an entire book about questions surrounding the 2020 election. On the other, he is among the handful of Republicans who will occasionally cross the aisle, as he did with his vote to raise the debt limit and in support of his most heartfelt cause, prison reform. Nehls is a policy guy, not a camera chaser. So, it’s odd that he has not been able to attract a single Democratic co-sponsor for his bill, despite having 72 Republicans lined up. Still, the FAA reauthorization package as a whole passed the committee with unanimous support from both the red and blue teams.

The same bill was introduced to the upper house by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who was able to peel off two Democrats. One is frequent swing voter Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.). The other is, interestingly enough, arguably the best aviator in Washington. While a lot of high-ranking officials might know their way around a Cessna or Learjet, Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.) has flown four Space Shuttle missions as well as 39 carrier-based combat sorties during Operation Desert Storm, resulting in two Distinguished Flying Crosses. So, it seems that both sides would be well served in hearing him out.

“The national shortage of pilots has caused too many delays and disruptions for travelers across the country,” Kelly said. “Our bipartisan legislation would allow experienced and highly skilled pilots to continue their careers past age 65, if they choose, which would help address staffing and travel challenges as we continue to strengthen the pilot pipeline.”

Also, let’s keep in mind that this bill isn’t being considered in a vacuum. Age is an increasing factor in public policy as we live longer and healthier lives.

Final approach to the Let Experienced Pilots Fly Act

It’s one thing to get blowback from trying to raise the age at which one can retire, but quite another when considering the age at which one must retire.

While ALPA isn’t wrong about the disruption to individual careers and that moving the arbitrary retirement age from one whole number to another whole number won’t solve the problem by itself, its overall case could be viewed as pretty weak. Of course there will be lawsuits. Of course this will trigger some renegotiation. But is it really such a great burden to have your promotion to better routes and bigger planes put off by a couple of years? And thinking years ahead, wouldn’t it benefit you, too, to have the option at age 65 to continue flying for another two years?

And is international flying really an issue? Around 85% of all U.S.-originated flights are domestic. Further, although the International Civil Aviation Organization requires cross-border pilots to be no older than 65, the U.S. would not be alone in allowing older professionals to fly domestic routes. Japanese pilots can be 68. Australia, Brazil, Costa Rica, New Zealand, Russia, New Zealand, Senegal, Ukraine and even Canada have no defined upper limit.

If you’re reading this, then this is not just an academic exercise for you. Whether or not you’re still working at ages 65 and 66 directly affects how much money you’ll have for retirement.  The House of Representatives has passed this bill (7/20/23), so the age change is one step closer to becoming a reality.

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