January 2, 2007
Airline captains renew effort to up retirement age
60 is the number pilots hate
The Atlanta (GA) Journal-Constitution
Harry Ballance flies passenger jets in and out of Atlanta's busy airspace every week — just as he did during 35 years as a Delta Air Lines pilot.
But instead of flying an airliner, Ballance is the captain of a much smaller but equally fast and complex corporate jet.
|Harry Ballance of Vinings, forced to retire
from Delta Air Lines at age 60 by federal regulations, puts his Piper Cub
in a hangar at Briscoe Field in Lawrenceville. At 67, Ballance is still
flying corporate jets. The mandatory retirement age for airlines has been
in place since 1959.|
The change was dictated by an FAA rule — now under scrutiny — that imposed mandatory retirements at age 60. Ballance says experience gives older pilots an edge, and he says they should be allowed to continue their airline careers as long as they meet stringent physical and performance standards.
"I don't have the reflexes of a 25-year-old," said Ballance, 67, of Vinings, who also owns and flies vintage airplanes from the 1930s. "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."
U.S. airline captains have been forced to give up their coveted left seats at 60 since 1959, when the FAA imposed an ironclad age limit. The rule has been challenged many times in nearly five decades, but no attempt to alter it has ever succeeded.
That may be about to change.
The international body that governs commercial aviation raised the pilot retirement age to 65 in November, and most of the world quickly followed. Only Colombia, France, Pakistan and the United States declined.
U.S. pilots and airlines have long regarded the age 60 rule as a sacred cow — and both sides gained from it.
Pilots fought for, and won, better pensions and benefits than other airline employees largely based on the rationale that forced retirements at 60 cut into their peak earning years. Younger fliers welcomed the rule because it allowed them to move up seniority lists faster, gaining higher pay and better schedules sooner.
Airlines found things to like about the rule, too, because it allowed them to replace their most senior, highest-paid workers with less costly junior pilots.
But a combination of radical post-9/11 drops in pilot pay and pensions, higher health care costs and a looming pilot shortage have brought together the interests of many senior pilots and airline managers.
Pilots want to extend their top earning years. And those who fly for carriers that have dumped pensions on the federal Pension Benefit Guarantee Corp. are severely penalized for retiring at 60 instead of 65, even though FAA rules force them to do so. The PBGC pays up to $45,000 a year to employees who retire at 65, but that number falls to $28,000 a year for age 60 retirees.
Also, retired pilots face mounting medical insurance bills from the time they retire until they are eligible for Medicare. Raising the retirement age to 65 would bridge that gap.
U.S. pilots also complain they're now faced with blatantly unfair situations such as foreign airline captains being allowed to fly within the United States until age 65. Same-aged U.S. pilots within those borders are grounded.
Age limit has remained sacrosanct
U.S. airline pilots have received FAA permission to continue flying after head injuries, heart surgeries, drug and alcohol dependencies, and losses of limbs — but the FAA's age limit has remained sacrosanct.
"I undergo a thorough medical examination every six months and a check ride in the airplane — just like I did at the airline," said Ballance, who has learned to fly three types of corporate jets since leaving Delta in 1999. "I'm as safe a pilot today as I've ever been."
Ballance said hard-won experience keeps him from succumbing to pressure from corporate clients to rush or skimp on safety-related expenses.
"Anytime you get in a hurry, you're fixing to screw up," he said. "I go by the checklists, I take my time, and if there's frost on the wings or tail, I make sure the plane gets de-iced. Safety comes first, regardless of cost."
U.S. pilots have long regarded the age 60 rule as a dirty trick instigated by American Airlines founder C.R. Smith. Their oft-repeated story is that Smith wanted to get rid of a troublesome contingent of senior pilot union leaders. He approached his friend, Elwood R. "Pete" Quesada, the first FAA administrator, and Quesada pushed through the hated rule. Less than two years later, in 1961, Quesada was rewarded with a seat on American's board of directors.
"The rule has nothing to do with safety," Ballance said. "It never did."
The FAA and the National Institutes for Health have conducted numerous studies of the age 60 rule as it relates to airline safety over the years, but none has been conclusive. Legal challenges also have never altered the status quo.
A 2006 FAA panel deadlocked on changing the age 60 rule.
Airline pilots continue to curse Quesada 48 years after his controversial decision. John Deakin, a retired airline pilot and aviation columnist, wrote an especially pointed essay when he turned 60, saying he hoped Quesada, who died in 1993 at age 89, "has an especially hot place reserved for him, because he made an unfair, arbitrary and illogical rule that has now clipped the wings of thousands of fine young 60-year-olds."
'Some age must be selected'
The Air Line Pilots Association, the nation's largest and most powerful pilots union, challenged the age 60 rule at first but now endorses it.
"Some age must be selected at which mandatory retirement is indicated," ALPA President Duane Woerth told Congress. "Others would choose a different age, however, age 60 ... has served us well since 1959."
Ballance recently flew to Brazil to pick up a new $25 million Embraer Legacy jet. He said he enjoys learning the intricate workings of each new type of airplane and intends to keep flying as long as he believes he can meet his own demanding standards.
"I do this because I've got a passion for it," he said. "It's what I've always wanted to do, I've been lucky enough to get to do it for a long time — and I still enjoy it.
"As long as I can consistently do it better than the young guys, I intend to stick with it. And right now, I feel like I'm consistently better than they are."