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"4,000 may lose jobs before FAA acts"

Sunday, May 27, 2007

4,000 may lose jobs before FAA acts
By Sean M. Wood
The San Antonio (TX) Express-News

Ron Richtsmeier looks up from working in the yard of his New Braunfels home
to gaze wistfully at the Southwest Airlines jets headed for San Antonio from

Richtsmeier used to pilot one of those jets. Then he turned 60. 

"I was fired by the FAA when I had a birthday," he said. "On April 21 of
2001, I flew a Boeing 737 full of passengers. The next day, because I had a
birthday, I was no longer safe to do that in the eyes of the FAA." 

Airline pilots have been forced under Federal Aviation Administration
guidelines to retire at 60 since 1959, after a labor dispute between
American Airlines and its pilots. To settle the dispute, the FAA made
retirement at 60 mandatory. 

The number of commercial airline pilots has been dropping since 2001 when
there were 140,486 active airline transport certificate holders. That number
was down to 137,589 at the end of 2006 and is expected to keep dropping as
the population ages. 

Now the FAA plans to increase the mandatory retirement age to 65. But the
agency's rule-making process could take 18 to 24 months. In that time, as
many as 4,000 pilots could be forced to retire. 

Rule changes take time, FAA spokeswoman Alison Duquette said. The agency has
to gather comments on the proposed change. 

Pilots who face turning 60 before the age change won't be allowed to keep
their active status even though the FAA could offer waivers and extensions. 

"We're going to lose 4,000 pilots while the FAA fiddles with this rule,"
said Paul Emens, chairman of Airline Pilots Against Age Discrimination. 

The FAA decided on the change after the International Civil Aviation
Organization increased its retirement age to 65 from 60. The change went
into effect last November. The ICAO was set up by the United Nations in 1944
"to promote the safe and orderly development of international civil aviation
throughout the world," according to its Web site. 

Soon after the change, FAA Administrator Marion Blakey announced in a speech
that her agency would increase the retirement age to 65. 

It's not happening fast enough for Emens. The Baltimore-based Southwest
Airlines pilot is 16 months away from his 60th birthday. Emens and
Richtsmeier founded APAAD in 1998. 

"(The FAA) could make it move faster," he said. "They could institute an
interim rule change, which they have not. The issue is that they are giving
us a rules change, but they're taking their time and letting the
corporations and unions ease into it." 

Not every airline pilot is in favor of changing the retirement age. The
Allied Pilots Association, which represents 12,000 American Airlines pilots,
wants to keep the retirement age at 60. Spokesman Gregg Overman said it's a
safety issue. 

"There's no dispute that your cognitive skills decline with age," Overman
said. "Sixty as a retirement age was a best guess in 1959. Any change to
(the age limit) will be arbitrary." 

But he stopped short of saying that pilots for airlines such as British
Airways and Iberia are less safe because they are older than 60. Both
airlines have code-sharing agreements with American. 

American Airlines spokesman Tim Smith said the carrier would be happy with
changing the retirement age or keeping it at 60 as long as either option
would be "cost neutral." 

He pointed out, though, that pilots cannot move up in rank or pay unless
there is an open position. A first officer can't become a captain unless the
captain moves on to a larger plane or retires. 

It behooves union members to have their elders retire at 60 instead of
hanging around another five years, said Richard Aboulafia, vice president of
analysis with the Teal Group, a Virginia-based aerospace consultant. He also
said any argument that safety is a reason to support the current retirement
age is specious. 

"It's tough to make the safety argument," he said. "ICAO's ruling is very
definitive. Experience matters in this business. Vision impairment, hearing
impairment, those are things you test for. You might want to increase
testing at some point. You're eliminating people who have a lot of

The ICAO decided to raise the retirement age for a couple of reasons, said
Denis Chagnon, a spokesman for the agency in Montreal. First, airplanes have
become easier to fly. There were also data from other countries that showed
no increase in accidents or close calls from pilots who flew until they were
63 or even 65. 

"It covers about 3,000 pilots," Chagnon said. "That information indicated
that a higher upper-age time limit is compatible with flying. It's based on

There is a caveat that the pilot can be 65 as long as the co-pilot is
younger than 60. 

Richtsmeier, the former Southwest pilot, moved from the cockpit to
Southwest's training center. 

There, he certified new pilots to be first officers and trained first
officers to become captains. He retired in 2006. 

"I enjoyed it an awful lot," Richtsmeier said, though not as much as
piloting a plane. 

"It wasn't flying," he said. "It's not what I was capable of doing."


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