Aviation > Pilot/Controller Forum

Pilot Age and Safety retirement rules reignite risks debate


(thank you AIN)

Found this on my LinkedIn feed from Chick in a Cockpit, Erika Armstrong.
Interesting Read.  Wondering when the same thought process, if it will, also be looked at by ATC's.

By JAMES WYNBRANDT • Contributor - Business Aviation
April 1, 2024
Mandatory pilot retirement regulations are in the spotlight as battles over age limits rage anew. Previously, these issues largely bypassed the business aviation world, because retirement age regulations established by many agencies worldwide apply solely to airline operations.

The effort to raise the standard from 65 to 67 years through the latest FAA reauthorization package is simply the newest clash over Part 121 retirement rules.

But for the first time, mandated retirement has come to the Part 135 air taxi/air charter realm, as NetJets, following a recent law change, this year imposed a retirement age of 70 for its pilots.

Many arguments for keeping, raising, or scrapping the mandatory retirement age have been offered over the decades, but the most contentious continue to be safety-based: those favoring age limits for safety’s sake cite scientific acceptance of cognitive declines associated with aging; advocates of relaxing the rules note the lack of data linking accidents and pilot age that would justify retirement mandates. Their ongoing campaigns have embroiled regulators, operators, pilots, safety professionals, and many others for the majority of the more than 100 years since age limits came to aviation.

The International Commission for Air Navigation established the first age limit for pilots in 1919, set at 45 years, but the stricture may not have fit well with the quickly evolving industry. When the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), the global regulator of international airline operations, assumed the commission’s responsibilities in 1947, the age restriction was removed.

In the absence of regulatory limits, in the late 1950s, U.S. airlines sought to impose their own mandatory retirement policies. At the time, jets were replacing piston fleets (the pilots’ union, Air Line Pilots Association, or ALPA, signed its first jet contract—for National Airlines’ DC-8 fleet—in 1958), and with a supply of young, military-trained jet pilots available, management at major carriers began raising questions about older (and more highly paid) pilots’ ability to transition to turbine aircraft.

Return of Age Limits
In 1958, American Airlines, TWA, and Western Airlines instituted an age-60 mandatory retirement, citing additional costs of training and concerns about declining mental capabilities. Pilots at all three carriers filed labor grievances in response.

That same year, Congress created the Federal Aviation Agency (now the Federal Aviation Administration/FAA), with the responsibility for civil aviation safety. Surely, retirement policy and regulation would have been key issues confronting the new agency.

Meanwhile, the airlines’ retirement disputes were sent to binding arbitration for resolution, where all three of the companies were ruled in violation of fair labor law. The Western Airlines arbitrator said the evidence didn’t support the carrier’s contention “that it is unsafe to let a pilot perform after the age of 60” or “that the attainment of age 60 is in itself enough to disqualify a pilot.”

American Airlines alone refused to comply with the ruling, which helped spark a pilots’ strike that the airline settled in early 1959. Shortly after that, American’s CEO, C.R. Smith, sent a private missive to the head of the FAA, Elwood Quesada—the two were close friends, having served together in the Army Air Force during World War II—advocating a government-mandated retirement age. Whatever the impact of Smith’s entreaty, soon thereafter the agency drafted a medical justification for mandatory retirement, and by year’s end the age 60 rule was published.

The following year, the International Air Transport Association (IATA), a global representative of airlines’ interests, recommended that its members incorporate the same benchmark, and in 1963 ICAO adopted an age-60 pilot retirement standard, based on perceived risks of sudden incapacitation, according to ICAO.

(Not all countries have followed ICAO’s recommendation: Australia, Brazil, Canada, Costa Rica, New Zealand, Senegal, and Ukraine are among the members that have no Part 121 retirement mandates, though their 65-and-older pilots are barred from nations ascribing to ICAO age standards. Japan, amid a long-term pilot shortage, raised the retirement age from 65 to 68 in 2015.)

Over succeeding years, calls to raise or abolish the limit continued, and ICAO periodically reviewed and left in place the age-60 standard, even as advances in healthcare quantifiably extended the vitality of aging populations throughout the developed world.

Aging Science
With U.S. airline traffic rebounding after 9/11 early in this century and concerns about a possible pilot shortage growing, the Senate directed the FAA to revisit the issue of pilot age and accidents.

The agency’s Civil Aeromedical Institute (now the Civil Aerospace Medical Institute) published four reports in response. Two, published in 2003, examined pilot age and accident rates, the first focusing on ATP pilots, the second analyzing both ATP and commercial pilots, and both including accident data from Part 135 pilots aged 60 to 63.

The reports’ conclusions were filled with caveats. However, the first found, “The overall tests suggest that mean accident rates did not differ statistically by age group,” while the second determined that “the main effect for age was statistically significant in all analyses.”

A third report was simply a bibliography of research and publications on pilot age and performance conducted during the 1990s, and the fourth was a statistical analysis of the data used by the Chicago Tribune in a 1999 article that reported airline accidents were spread evenly among all pilot age groups.

One of the FAA’s conclusions in this last report resonates even today amid debates about links between pilot age and safety risks: “…More comprehensive investigations are warranted. There are important technical issues that must be carefully considered in order to conduct a more definitive, and informative, analysis with regard to Age 60.”

These four reports were written more than 20 years ago, before airline pilots were permitted to fly until age 65, and remain the only pilot age-related research the FAA has conducted.

Support for relaxing retirement rules, meanwhile, gained more traction in the international community. In 2006, following a policy review by its Technical Commission, ICAO determined that although incapacitation risk increases with age—the basis for its age 60 rule—“the risk of incapacitation[-]cause accident is less now than in the 1970s,” because of improved life expectancy and medical technologies. Accordingly, ICAO raised the standard retirement age to 65 for multi-crew operations, when paired with a second crewmember under age 60.

The U.S. was among a small minority (16 percent) of the organization’s almost 200 members that favored maintaining the age-60 rule due to possible safety risks.

But despite the U.S. defense of the status quo, by the next year, the FAA and ALPA reversed their backing for the age 60 rule, and Congress set 65 as the new limit in 2007’s Fair Treatment for Experienced Pilots Act.

doctor and patient
© AdobeStock
The Business Aviation Path
Fast forward a decade. In 2018, NetJets declared, “The lack of a pilot age restriction for large private air carriers is a growing concern in aviation safety,” and that same year Congress proposed establishing mandatory retirement rules for Part 135 and Part 91K (fractional ownership) operators. The proposed law would have applied only to those flying 150,000 or more flight operations per year—a benchmark that NetJets alone, operating the world’s largest fleet of business jets, met.

Though the proposal was scrapped that year, it resurfaced in the omnibus spending bill adopted by Congress in December 2022, with two key changes. First, the operational threshold was halved; any operator flying at least 75,000 jet operations annually may establish a retirement age of 70 for its pilots. Second, the policy is optional for qualifying operators. Once instituted, however, a mandatory retirement policy can’t be reversed.

NetJets implemented the policy in January, reportedly affecting fewer than 100 of the company’s some 3,100 pilots. A request by a group of pilots for a preliminary injunction blocking the policy implementation was denied, as the court deemed the plaintiffs’ case unlikely to succeed. NetJets declined to comment on its new policy, and the NetJets Association of Shared Aircraft Pilots, the pilots’ union, also declined to comment, citing potential pending litigation.

Even after cutting the initial proposal’s qualifying flight-operations threshold in half—to 75,000 operations—only three additional operators qualify: Flexjet, Vista Global, and Wheels Up.

“Flexjet has opted against implementing the rule,” said Joe Salata, that company’s senior vice president of flight operations. “We do not have any reason to force retirement when the pilots remain healthy and qualified.”

Vista America president Dave Stanley sidestepped the retirement policy question but said that the company’s training, in-house programs, and proficiency checks for its pilots ensure “their continued proficiency and competence.” Wheels Up declined to address the topic.

The Flight Safety Foundation followed the development of the Part 135 retirement policy, finding it without medical justification. “We’re interested in data-driven provisions, based on stringent medical requirements, and I don’t believe the age of 70 is data-driven,” said Hassan Shahidi, president and CEO. Advances in medical technology, diagnostic capability, and health data analysis should be harnessed to “make sure that pilots are assessed appropriately, and the right decisions are made in terms of their suitability to fly, regardless of age,” Shahidi said.

The National Air Transportation Association (NATA), while taking no position on the new retirement rule, also sees no evidence of risk reduction in the retirement mandate.

“What data is telling you that safety has been marginalized because of [age]?” NATA’s v-p of regulatory affairs, Alan Stephens, asked rhetorically. “That’s where the logic behind the argument [for age limits] begins to fall apart.”

That same absence of evidence appears to apply to the Part 91 world. “We have examined NTSB accident data and cannot find any correlation between age and safety,” said the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA), whose members are mostly general aviation pilots, unencumbered by regulatory age limits. But today, insurance underwriters “are not renewing policies or quoting exorbitant premiums” once pilots hit 70, even with impeccable safety and health records, AOPA said, forcing many to stop flying.

The new Part 135/91K retirement mandate was not the first effort to put business aviation operations under federal age limits. In 1980, amidst a rapid expansion in air charter activity, the NTSB, citing three unspecific accidents, told the FAA it had found “significant medical problems involving pilots more than 60 years old,” and recommended that Part 121 age limits “should be equally and immediately applied to Part 135 operations.” Noting that previous studies on the link between aging and human performance “have generally been inconclusive,” the NTSB also recommended that the agency undertake its own studies to establish an appropriate age limit for charter pilots.

Concurrently, the National Institute of Health (NIH) was conducting a congressionally mandated study examining whether mandatory retirement for pilots aged 60 or older was medically warranted, and the two aviation organizations agreed to review the NIH report’s results before proceeding.

The NIH concluded that insufficient precise and reliable data existed for determining the medical appropriateness of mandatory retirement ages, or understanding how the data could be medically evaluated to make such determinations. Citing these results to the safety board, the FAA declined to change its retirement regulations, and after several attempts to get the agency to reverse that decision, in 1984 the NTSB classified its Part 135 mandatory retirement recommendation as “Closed—unacceptable action.”

The Negotiations
Negotiations over the five-year FAA reauthorization making its way through Congress have been the latest retirement age battleground. Sparked by concerns that a pilot shortage could impact service to smaller communities, the House version of the bill initially proposed raising the Part 121 retirement age from 65 to 67 before it was removed to ensure swift progress on the bill.

However, the issue still had become a sticking point in the Senate. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina), a leading supporter, minimized any potential safety impact, noting that when the limit was raised from 60 to 65 in 2007, “The sky did not fall.”

Not taking any chances, when the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee brought the reauthorization package up for consideration, FAA Administrator Michael Whitaker wrote committee leaders, stating, “…Other countries have not conducted research before increasing their upper age limit, but in the United States, we have the largest, most complex system in the world.” Before increasing the retirement age, Whitaker said, “It is crucial to provide the agency an opportunity to conduct research and determine mitigations.”

ALPA restated its opposition, labeling the alleged pilot shortage a “fake problem,” and charging that the change would disrupt airlines’ operations and training, and raise ticket prices.

The Senate Commerce Committee, like the House, left the retirement age unmentioned in its FAA funding proposal, making any change an uphill battle. But not leaving anything to chance, ALPA waged a major lobbying campaign in March, taking out ads in publications read by lawmakers to object to any policy change.

ICAO and its age 65 standard will be the next theater for the campaign’s opposing forces, coming later this year. IATA, representing almost 300 carriers, in 2022 submitted a paper to the organization, “Upper Age Limit for Pilots,” that suggests scrapping Part 121 pilot age limits entirely.

“The demand for commercial pilots is expected to exceed supply,” IATA’s paper said, and the time had come to “revisit legacy age limitation requirements to ensure that they remain fit for purpose, do not represent an unjustified barrier to employment for these critical workers, and do not constitute de facto age discrimination.”

The proposal is scheduled to come before the organization’s 193 member states for consideration at this September’s General Assembly in Montreal.


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