U.S. should drop requirement of pilots to retire at 60, but FAA change flawed

By U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe - The Hill

In 1959, Dwight D. Eisenhower was president, Alaska and Hawaii became states, transcontinental jet airliner service began and the life expectancy for the average American was about 69 years. In that same year, the Federal Aviation Administration established the Age 60 Rule, which continues to force our most experienced commercial pilots into retirement at the arbitrary age of 60. Much has changed since the 1950s (including the American life expectancy — now 77), but inexplicably the Age 60 Rule remains.

When the Age 60 Rule was enacted almost a half-century ago, medical science was not the genesis of the idea. In fact, the Age 60 Rule was put in place to settle a labor dispute; it had nothing to do with flight safety or pilot health. In today’s world where people are living longer, healthier lives, the Age 60 Rule stands out as an archaic and discriminatory rule that in fact runs counter to public safety.

As an active, commercially rated pilot, I can tell you that my base of experience alone has seen me through more than one crisis while flying. Piloting, like many tradecrafts, is something that depends more on practical experience than on book learning. I say with firm conviction that — as long as a pilot passes FAA medical certification — the more years that pilot has flown, the safer the passenger.

Recently, FAA Administrator Marion Blakey announced a change to the Age 60 Rule, saying the U.S. would harmonize our airline pilot retirement policy with the international standard retirement age of 65. In a January speech, Ms. Blakey declared, “It’s time to close the book on Age 60,” and asserted that safety in the cockpit is enhanced by allowing our most experienced pilots to fly an additional five years. As the author of S.65, legislation designed to do just that, I acknowledge this is a step in the right direction, but there is little truth in advertising when it comes to this particular issue.

Ms. Blakey and the FAA have decided to undertake a cumbersome and unnecessarily long rulemaking process, requiring at least two years for the change to be implemented. While the FAA continues to “investigate” that which much of the world has long acknowledged, over 3,600 American pilots will unnecessarily be forced out of their jobs. Furthermore, under Ms. Blakey’s proposal, thousands of experienced aviators would essentially be banned from ever working as an airline pilot in the U.S. again. Ironically, these same pilots could continue to fly to and from the U.S. while employed by foreign carriers such as Saudi Arabian or Indian airlines. One wonders why we have laws that force us to outsource our top piloting talent.

Moreover, for the FAA to spend an additional two years gathering data is simply duplicative, regulatory overkill.

Every day the Age 60 Rule remains in effect, America loses more than five experienced pilots — many of them Vietnam-era veterans. To add insult to injury, since November, the FAA has allowed foreign airline pilots over 60 to work and fly in U.S. airspace while continuing to force the retirement of more than 800 American pilots. Some of those U.S. pilots forced into retirement are veteran astronauts and former generals — real American heroes.

That’s why Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) and Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) joined me in the introduction of S.65, the Freedom to Fly Act. Our bill instructs the FAA to expedite the rulemaking process so that American pilots have the same rights as foreign pilots working in the U.S. right now. It mandates that the FAA act on this issue within 30 days of passage and sunsets the old Age 60 Rule for good. It also provides airlines and pilot unions the tools they need to implement the change quickly.

Currently, there are 25 cosponsors among both parties to S. 65, while the House companion legislation (H.R. 1125), which was introduced by fellow pilot Rep. Robin Hayes (R-N.C.), enjoys strong bipartisan support of almost 70 cosponsors.

Together, we will put a long-overdue stop to the arbitrary and discriminatory Age 60 Rule by adopting a rational age standard and implementing it in a reasonable timeframe. It is in America’s best interest to keep our most experienced pilots flying.

Inhofe is the ranking member of the Committee on Environment and Public Works. A former commercial pilot with over 10,000 hours of experience, he flew around the world in 1991.