A pending change in international aviation rules could soon lead to older pilots at the controls of airliners flying within the USA.
Next week, commercial airline pilots in all but four countries will be allowed to continue flying until age 65. In most nations, pilots now must retire at age 60.
The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), which sets world aviation standards, issued the policy change two months ago. It cited the lack of evidence that pilots in their 60s are more prone to mistakes than younger pilots, provided they're in good health.
Since the dawn of the commercial jet age, airline pilots in the USA and most other nations have been required to step down at 60. With the change in the international standard, effective on Thanksgiving Day, only the USA, France, Pakistan and Colombia will hold fast to the age 60 retirement rule.
But that could change soon. Pilots facing what many view as premature retirement have fought for years to push the retirement age to 65. But Congress, the courts and the Federal Aviation Administration have refused to order the change.
They argue that economics, not human physiology, underlie the rule. With the ICAO changing the world standard, U.S. opponents of the current rule gain a powerful argument for change. A report from a panel of experts is due later this month to FAA Administrator Marion Blakey. Blakey formed the panel in September after ICAO adopted its new standard.
FAA spokeswoman Alison Duquette said Blakey is awaiting the panel's recommendation. If Blakey decides to order a change in pilots' retirement age, a new rule could take effect by spring. And if she doesn't, Congress may order her to do so.
A measure sponsored by Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., and attached to the Senate's transportation appropriations bill, stands a good chance of surviving a Senate-House conference report expected to be dealt with in the upcoming lame duck session.
Since the late 1980s, the FAA has conducted at least five formal reviews of the mandatory retirement rule. The agency says those studies have not disproved its position that the skills and judgment of the average airline pilot diminish after age 60. But neither do studies prove it, opponents of the current rule say.
"There's no medical evidence" supporting (the FAA's) position, says Ike Eichelkraut, president of the Southwest Airlines Pilots' Association. SWAPA has broken ranks with most other pilots unions and advocates a retirement age of 65.
Says Eichelkraut: "We let pilots with known medical conditions under the age of 60 continue to fly, but not pilots who are in absolutely great health who happen to be over 60. It makes no sense."
Management at Southwest strongly favors a higher retirement age for pilots, but U.S. airlines as a group have no uniform position on the issue.