The Air Line Pilots Association, the nation's largest pilots union, on Thursday said it will support raising the retirement age of pilots to 65 from 60, a move that likely will hasten the end of a long-running dispute about how old is too old to fly a commercial jet.
The switch risks dividing the union, which for the last 15 years has actively opposed efforts to raise the retirement age.
The union, which represents 60,000 airline pilots, said 35 percent of its membership said in a survey that it should not change its stance, despite mounting indications that either Congress or the Federal Aviation Administration was going to raise the retirement age.
The FAA said this year that it would issue new rules within two years extending the retirement age by five years. The House and Senate are considering legislation that would require the FAA to extend the retirement age sooner.
"We're dealing with the reality that we have got," said union spokesman Pete Janhunen.
Janhunen said members were evenly divided when asked if the union should change its stance. But 65 percent supported changing the position when asked if they believed the change was going to be made with or without the union's participation, he said.
Capt. Paul Emens, a Southwest Airlines pilot and the chairman of Airline Pilots Against Age Discrimination, said the union's position against changing the retirement age had become untenable.
"ALPA was losing the support of congressional leaders and members that they have always had in their camp," he said. "They were being told that the union's position was not credible."
More than 80 members of the House are co-sponsors of a bill sponsored by Rep. Robin Hayes (R-N.C.) that would raise the retirement age. Hayes said he believed the union's switch would help ensure passage.
But efforts also are under way to attach the measure to the FAA reauthorization bill as was done earlier this year in the Senate, said Emens, who noted that about 200 pilots are forced to retire each month.
The mandatory retirement age was enacted in 1959 by the FAA at the behest of American Airlines as a safety issue. But the FAA never conducted a study to determine if older pilots represented a risk.
Janhunen said that 80.1 percent of the votes cast by the ALPA board supported changing the retirement-age stance. Only directors representing pilots from Northwest Airlines and ExpressJet, the commuter affiliate of Continental Airlines, voted against the change, according to pilots at the meeting.
Raising the retirement age could allow some airlines, such as Chicago-based United, to deal more easily with staffing shortages. But it also could increase payroll costs, since retirement-age pilots tend to command higher salaries than their younger peers.
While efforts to raise the retirement age have been made repeatedly since 1959, the current effort gained speed when the International Civil Aviation Organization, a United Nations agency that regulates air travel, implemented a rule in November permitting pilots up to age 65 to fly as long as their co-pilots are younger than 60.
Pilots employed by foreign carriers can fly in and out of the United States until they are 65, but those who work for U.S. carriers can't.
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