At 59, Mark Zenner would like to keep working for a few more years. But because he's a pilot with a major U.S. airline, the Denver resident will be forced to retire when he turns 60 in May.
The Federal Aviation Administration requires all U.S. pilots to stop flying large commercial passenger planes at age 60.
With pensions disappearing, better health at older ages and the baby boom generation flexing its muscle, some pilots are pushing for a change.
Zenner and other pilots want to change the Age 60 rule, which the Air Line Pilots Association describes as "one of the most historically contentious issues among the pilot community."
The rule "is antiquated, ossified and was never based on medical science," said Zenner. "For me personally, there's a huge economic motivation behind this."
His pension benefits were reduced 75 to 80 percent after his airline terminated its pension plan. Now his youngest daughter has been accepted to medical school.
"I would dearly like to help her out with that," Zenner said.
With nearly 69 percent of pilots in the Air Line Pilots Association between the ages of 41 and 60, debate over the mandatory retirement age is bound to heat up.
"Sixty is just a number that's really picked out of the air," said Frank McCurdy, a 65-year-old retired United Airlines pilot. "It's basically not fair."
Congress is considering legislation that would raise the maximum age to 65, and the Federal Aviation Administration is reviewing its policy.
Opposition to the change is strongest among pilots whose pensions remain intact and younger pilots eager to work into the best-paying jobs.
If fewer pilots retire, gaining seniority and moving up the ranks will take longer. And that "translates to earnings, quality of life and schedule," said Greg Mateyko.
He has been flying for a major national airline for about 10 years and would like more opportunity to fly the best routes with the most appealing schedules.
Support for the change often comes from older pilots, those whose airlines don't have pension plans and those whose pensions have been reduced.
"Their lifestyle is dependent upon the pay they were getting and the anticipated retirement money they were going to get, and that all went by the wayside," said Bert Yetman. He is president of the Professional Pilots Federation, a group formed in 1991 to eliminate or change the Age 60 rule.
"Now they've still got house payments to make, kids going to college. Suddenly ? they're having to sell their houses, change their lifestyle."
Guy Casey of Castle Rock, 67, retired from United Airlines and now works for NetJets as a corporate aircraft pilot. He's among the retirees who would have enjoyed the opportunity to work for a major airline a few more years.
"They're kind of forced like I was to leave the airline and go out looking for other work," he said.
Pilot groups have been lobbying Congress for almost a decade to raise the age limit. They say the nearly 50-year-old rule was based on politics rather than science.
Yet as recently as 2005, FAA air surgeon Jon Jordan defended the rule when he testified before Congress. He said it "represents (our) best determination of the time when a general decline in health-related functions and overall cognitive and performance capabilities may begin ? and therefore jeopardize safety."
Cardiovascular disease rises with age, beginning between ages 55 and 65, Jordan testified, as does a decline in sensory and motor capabilities.
The issue is complicated by varying opinions in the medical community.
Aerospace Medical Association executive director Russell Rayman testified that in countries that permit air transport pilots to continue flying beyond age 60, "to our knowledge, there has been no adverse effect upon safety" and there is "no clear answer" to whether aging causes significant performance declines in the cockpit.
FAA administrator Marion Blakey ordered a forum of airline, labor and medical experts to recommend whether the United States should raise the age limit.
Next week, commercial airline pilots in all but four countries will be allowed to continue flying until age 65.
"But my experience more than makes up for any loss of hand-eye coordination. Experience counts for a lot more in this business than reaction time."