Jumpseat: Life After 60

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The flying public will never witness a white-haired captain shuffling a walker through the terminal, but the improbable image seems closer to reality now that airline pilots can fly to the age of 65. My colleagues who fought the new legislation are probably not laughing, however. Statistics indicate that medical issues, mostly cardiac, increase as we age. Pilot incapacitation within the profession has not been a strong return on the radar screen, but until now, U.S. airline pilots have never worked past the age of 60. Continental recently was the first airline to experience an over-60 in-flight incapacitation.

Because the last 10 years have been dismal for most major airlines, hiring of younger pilots has been almost nonexistent. Cockpits are operating with an older crowd. The jury will be out for a while until the medical wisdom of the new rule is determined.

Despite the controversy, the Fair Treatment of Experienced Pilots Act passed during the night of Dec. 13, 2007. The act supersedes the last paragraph of FAR 121.383, which forbids airline pilots from working past the age of 60. The legislation aligns itself with November 2006 IACO rules that increased the maximum age for airline pilots operating internationally to 65. So what has changed?

Not much from an operational standpoint. Pilots that had not retired and were close to the big birthday before the law was enacted just kept right on flying. The changes are more of a logistical challenge for the individual carrier than the pilot.

The biggest operational revision involves line checks. A line check is an evaluation done on a flight that is representative of that pilot's current route qualification. Any pilot who has attained the age of 60 must have a line check every six months. Prior to age 60 the old rules still apply, with only captains required to have one every 24 months.

The over-age-60 line check has to occur six months within the exact date of the prior check. The FAA terminology of "calendar month" is not applicable. The standard one-month grace period is not allowed. A recurrent training cycle that is completed in a simulator can qualify for the line check, but only for copilots. Captains still must have a line check.

A six-month medical certificate is required for pilots over the age of 60. However, no special or additional criteria for the examination are necessary. In 25 years with my airline, everyone I've flown with has maintained a six-month medical certificate regardless of seat position, so this routine is not a big deal.

The one operational rule that I find unsettling, if not hypocritical, is the requirement to have a pilot under the age of 60 paired with a captain who is over the age of 60 if the flight is considered international. Two pilots over the age of 60 cannot fly the airplane together below 10,000 feet. Domestic flights do not have this requirement. Does this mean that international captains are more prone to illness? Or does enough doubt exist that two old guys in the cockpit will invite the risk of a catastrophic dual pilot failure?

If a definitive age is going to be established, shouldn't there be valid reasons based on facts that best serve the flying public? Is the fact that the law mandates a younger pilot in the cockpit an asset to passenger confidence, or is it really a reflection that we have reservations about our older colleagues? Let's be honest; age 65 is as arbitrary a number as age 60 had been.

I had indicated in a Jumpseat column about four years ago that the medical aspect of the issue could be argued two ways. Some of the documentation studies mandated by the U.S. Senate from about 10 years ago showed a very small trend that, as pilots approached the age of 60, accident rates increased. But an analysis of the individual accidents could not determine whether they were directly attributable to age. Although some studies proved that cognitive skills deteriorated with age, airline pilots have these skills tested during recurrent training periods. Recurrent training is already an existing screening process. The fact that airline pilots are medically examined and mentally probed during the initial hiring phase would lend credence to the trend that we are healthier than most groups.

The bottom line: None of the studies could put a conclusive twist on an age when an airline pilot is most likely to fall apart. ALPA, the union representation for many airline pilots, was once opposed to changing the age-60 FAR. It argued the potential medical risks. So why did ALPA change its mind?

It's all about the money. And understandably so. Many of my contemporaries from other airlines have suffered through bankruptcies, retirement obliteration, pay cuts and medical benefit reductions, just to name a few. Add in a divorce or a couple of kids headed to college, and the dream career is hit by the perfect financial storm. So what's really happening in today's airline cockpits because of the age 65 rule?

As with the rest of the world, pilots have been affected by the loss in value of their nest eggs. For those lucky enough to still have company-funded retirement benefit plans, the aggregate unit value of the pot has been cut almost in half. Eligible pilots receive substantially less via lump sums and/or annuities. Fortunately, the airline is bound by contractual agreement (bankruptcy not included) to maintain funding, so nothing has changed from that aspect. The same amounts are still applied depending upon an individual pilot's longevity. For those pilots whose retirement nest eggs became 401(k)s, well, enough said.

Many of the pilots who managed to retire before the financial market took a nose dive have suffered similar consequences. Some have taken jobs with foreign carriers to supplement their retirement income. As another example, a handful of my retired airline friends have become simulator instructors for Boeing.

Then, of course, there are those who still love the job. They are willing to fly until they drop — or at least until age 65.

The unfortunate result of pilots remaining in the seat longer is stagnation. Movement in the form of transition to another airplane or another seat position is minimal. With my airline, 17-year copilots are not uncommon. This lack of movement means limited opportunity for a raise. For those of us in protracted contract negotiations, movement is the only source of a pay raise.

This stagnation has been met with some guarded animosity from junior pilots. Throw in a suffering economy, an old pay cut, and then destroy the expectation that the light at the end of the tunnel is a trip to the left seat, and a little tension enters the picture. That's not to say wide-body cockpits have become the focal point for brawls, but the presence of an over-60 pilot may not be conducive to the same friendly atmosphere.

One of my best friends is a 777 captain in that category. His seniority position with the airline is a single-digit number. I chide him about his decision not to move out, but his logic is hard to dispute. Had he retired, a good portion of his funds would have been invested in the market. Needless to say, his pot would have suffered considerable shrinkage. At least by continuing to work, he is adding to his funds. My unscientific poll seems to indicate that most guys in my friend's situation will be waiting out the economy. If the situation improves, I predict a mass exodus — even for those who are pre-60. The age of 62 seems to be a common theme among pilots who are continuing to fly. Time will tell.

Amidst the turmoil is a little more turmoil. What about the airline pilots who retired under the age of 65 before the law was changed? Can the Fair Treatment of Experienced Pilots Act really be considered fair if we exclude a group that had less than optimal timing?

The answer to that question might be forthcoming. A group that originally fought to change the age-60 rule is attempting to find a just resolution for retired pilots who fell in the cracks. A lawsuit has been filed. The status of that lawsuit is unknown at this time, because my source has been given a gag order by the attorneys.

In any case, the flying public has to accept the fact that the pilots flying them to Disney World are probably older. I am willing to bet odds that the price of the fare and not the age of their captain dictate the airline choice. But that's not a surprise.

As for the over-60 crowd retiring, they'll just have to wait out the economy or age 65, whichever comes first. Who knows? Maybe I'll be writing about life after 65. …

Flying Drunk
The story of the Northwest crew that was arrested for flying while intoxicated in March 1990 is legend. It is indeed a legend that no airline pilot cares to see repeated, especially Joe Balzer.

Joe Balzer was the flight engineer on the infamous flight from Fargo, North Dakota, to Minneapolis, Minnesota. He was nearing the end of his probationary period and was about to realize a salary that would bring him and his wife closer to their dream home. His mistake brought that dream to a crashing end.

Although Flying Drunk is Joe's candid story about redemption, it is more about perseverance. Pursuing a career from the beginning requires fortitude. Pursuing a career after having lost everything, including your dignity, requires raw guts. You can learn more about Joe's story at flyingdrunk.com.

Les Abend
Les AbendAuthor
Les Abend is a retired, 34-year veteran of American Airlines, attempting to readjust his passion for flying airplanes in the lower flight levels—without the assistance of a copilot.

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