Airline pilots fighting to keep flying into their 60s won a key victory Thursday when the U.S. House of Representatives voted to raise the mandatory retirement age for commercial pilots to age 65 from 60.
The proposal is part of a sweeping bill that would authorize $68 billion for the Federal Aviation Administration over the next four years, funding that would be used to revamp the nation's aging air-traffic-control system and overhaul airports.
A provision that would raise pilots' retirement age is also in the FAA reauthorization bill pending before the U.S. Senate.
However, the measure is a long ways from becoming law.
The new retirement age could be stripped out of the bills as they wind through the lawmaking process. And the White House has threatened for other reasons to veto the version that the House approved 267-151. That vote total is less than the two-thirds majority needed to override a veto.
"We're over another hurdle and on to the next hurdle," said Paul Emens, 59, a Southwest Airlines captain who is chairman of Airline Pilots Against Age Discrimination, a group that advocates changing the retirement age for pilots.
After decades supporting a rule requiring commercial airline pilots to retire by their 60th birthday, the FAA earlier this year signaled that it now supports raising the retirement age to 65, the standard adopted by the authority that sets rules for international aviation.
"It's time to close the book on age 60," former FAA Administrator Marion Blakey said in a Jan. 30 speech. "The retirement age for pilots needs to be raised." Blakey stepped down from her post last week.
The issue has deeply divided pilots and their unions. It pits younger pilots eager to gain the seniority that brings better pay and choice assignments against older pilots who, in many cases, want to keep working to offset retirement benefits that were scuttled by carriers in bankruptcy.
Also fighting the measure are pilots reaching retirement age at carriers like American Airlines, which avoided bankruptcy and preserved its employees pensions. Those counting on retiring at age 60 don't want to see their benefits reduced.
Others contend that pilots in their 60s aren't able to rebound from jet lag and fatigue as easily as younger colleagues.
"For us, it's a no-brainer," said Gregg Overman, spokesman for the Allied Pilots Association, an independent union that represents American Airline pilots. "As far as we're concerned, age 60 should continue to serve as a highly effective safety regulation."
Since November 2006, federal authorities have allowed pilots up to the age of 65 at foreign carriers to fly aircraft in the U.S., even though pilots at domestic airlines are prohibited from doing so.
That inconsistency is infuriating to pilots who wish to extend their careers and spurred a raft of legislation in Congress. At least five bills introduced in the House or Senate this session have provisions that would raise pilots' retirement age to the international standard.
The FAA reauthorization bills present the best hope of a legislative solution to pilots seeking relief from current retirement rules, insiders say.
But it could take months for Congress and the White House to agree on compromise language. In that time, as many as 600 pilots will be forced to retire, said Emens, who's lobbying the House to pass the new retirement age as a stand-alone provision.
"We're fighting for the careers of people who are at risk," he said.