Raise The Pilot Retirement Age!

The U.S. government imposes numerous rules to keep commercial airline pilots scarce. This is done under the guise of safety, but the rules don’t actually have anything to do with safety. They’re pushing by pilots unions to keep people out of the profession. That increases their bargaining power. It makes then difficult to replace.

For instance most U.S. commercial pilots need 1500 flight hours to get hired.

These aren’t focused hours, and some carriers report they need to train the bad habits new pilots pick up in search of those hours out of them. Europe, which is just as safe, doesn’t require this. But it was a ‘do something’ requirement after the Colgan Air crash in 2009 – a flight piloted by crew with more than 1500 hours each.

Another rule that limits the number of pilots who can fly is a mandatory retirement age of 65 even though pilots have to be individually health-certified to fly.

The largest airline pilots union, ALPA, opposes raising the retirement age. They face several contrary incentives.

  • It means more pilots, when a pilot shortage means more leverage for unions.
  • At the same time, a higher retirement age means more union members for longer. And those union members actually benefit by not being forced into retirement!
  • Yet younger pilots want older pilots out! Since union contracts determine who flies which aircraft, which routes, and which schedules – and therefore how much a pilot gets paid – largely based on seniority, a higher retirement age while good for older union members is bad for younger ones.

With union opposition, the administration is opposed to the idea. Secretary of Being On TV Pete Buttigieg mocks the idea as relying on the boomer generation indefinitely, and suggests it compromises safety. Critics retorted that the President is 80.

Though it has no shot of becoming law with Republicans in the minority, Republican Senators are proposing raising the retirement age from 65 to 67 noting that “14,000 pilots would be forced to retire over the next four years” at age 65.

Secretary Buttigieg calls this a temporary fix though it would permanently expand the pool of pilots (perhaps by 5%). But unless he shifts his position on other barriers to entry into the profession (or supports standard for fewer pilots in the cockpit as technology advances), we aren’t going to see permanent fixes.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. ALPA is against raising the retirement age… That is until they’re for it. ALPA was initially against raising it from 60 to 65. Suddenly then, they were for it, wanting to have some ‘control’ over how the new regulation was going to be implemented.

    Regarding the 1500 hour rule, the pilots of the Colgan crash in Buffalo wouldn’t have been affected by this rule. Yet no rule was established to prevent pilots from commuting in on red-eye flights. No, that would encroach on the Holy grail of commuting. It’s all politics.

  2. As an airline pilot, I will guarantee you that I will not be flying an airliner a day after my 65th birthday, ideally a few years before that. I’m not alone in this sentiment. No thank you.

  3. @Airline Pilot – no obligation to keep working but the government shouldn’t make you stop if you’re healthy and capable of doing the job

  4. @Airline Pilot: As VP on a very large Corps of Engineers dam project, in May 1982 a laid-off Braniff captain was shown my office. FYI Braniff had just ceased operations. He wanted a job as a heavy equipment operator making $7.50/hour! This guy was hurting and needed any money he could get. My advice, be careful what you wish for. This country is upside down in a lot of places ($$$).

  5. Yea, I say as long as his/her seeing eye dog can get them safely to the cockpit let them keep racking up the hours.

  6. The job is hard enough at 60, even harder beyond that. And most at that age are flying long haul international. Not exactly healthy work. More than a few will be out on medical after 65. Ask around, most 60 plus pilots are opposed. I left at 62, no regrets.

  7. While I’m not seeing how lowering required pilot hours would make flying safer, I agree with Gary about raising the retirement age as long as there’s rigorous annual testing to verify that the pilot is still capable of doing their job.

  8. I think the FAA also needs to raise the air traffic controller mandatory age. They are very short-staffed.

  9. not just no but HE(* no.
    Why should pilots be forced to work beyond when other workers are allowed to retire because the government and their employers didn’t think through their workforce needs?

    And, don’t kid yourself, once you make it “optional” for some pilots, there will be some companies that will end up figuring out how to force pilots as a whole to stay on.

    Just like every other work group, senior employees cost more. The benefit of providing a few more cheap seats for some people will never be financially viable.

  10. My suggestion is for two changes, at least one pilot onboard qualified for the type be under 60, and allow pilots to be up to age 67. Even a deadhead under 60 would count, if they are qualified under the airlines procedures and for the type.

  11. @John H wrote, “… at least one pilot onboard qualified for the type be under 60…”

    That was done initially with the change to age 65 until everyone realized that it just caused scheduling problems and was eventually rescinded.

    How about over 65 pilots be given positions of relief pilots? Relieve them of landing currency limitations, too. That would also solve the problems junior FOs, who can only hold relief pilot positions on ultra long haul flying having to maintain their landing currency.

    I spoke with so many pilots who swore that they would never stay a day beyond age 60 but when the age 65 was passed, almost all stayed.

  12. @TimDunn, Raising the mandatory retirement age forces no one to keep working. The only way any company can “force” someone to work is by offering incentives (compensation) so they voluntarily keep working. But if your senior employee point has any validity, airlines won’t want to do that. FYI, ATPs undergo medical exams every six months. Mandatory retirement age is per se age discrimination and an arbitrary standard in any job.

    Lowering the number of hours required for an ATP rating is a temporary fix. To achieve a permanent increase the number of ATPs, you must get more people to want to become ATPs and start learning to fly. Lowering the hours requirement might affect safety (depending on what the new requirements are) and won’t much affect the number of ATPs. Europe also has a pilot shortage despite requiring less than 1,500 hours for airline pilots.

  13. We should also allow seniors to drive beyond age 67, so long as they pass a driving test each year.

  14. @ Gary

    Great job – another lovely shit stirring and sensationalist hack job.

    Why no mention of the Convention on International Civil Aviation (and its Rule of 65)? Clue – it stops pilots over 65 years old operating international flights. Any such would have to be redeployed to domestic operations (potential retraining on equipment type, etc) if the US age limit was upped from 65 to 67 years. Better work out what percentage that applies to – no?

    Why haven’t the US airlines been able to retain their pilots given the government bailout?

    Have checked whether the rate of new pilot licence issuance easily outweighs the benefit of an increased retirement age?

    From Forbes:

    “Spirit Airlines CEO Ted Christie countered conventional aviation industry wisdom on the alleged pilot shortage, saying Thursday that the long-term trend shows a sufficient supply of pilots.

    While that contradicts the view of other airlines, Christie seemed to be generally in agreement with the two largest pilot unions, the Air Line Pilots Association and the Allied Pilots Association.

    Speaking on Spirit’s first-quarter earnings call, Christie said the pilot pipeline will return to a historical norm of producing the needed 10,000 pilots per year.

    The industry’s outlook was summarized last month on United Airlines April 21st earnings call, when CEO Scott Kirby said that airlines need to hire 13,000 pilots this year but training produces just 5,000 to 7,000 pilots annually.”

    The devil’s always in the detail.

    How about an adult debate?

  15. john,
    the reason why ALPA is opposed is because they rightly know that if the government ALLOWS pilots to fly past 65, some airline will require it.

    United execs themselves said that the number of pilots over 60 that are out on medical leave is far higher than any other group is evidence that it is not in airlines’ financial interests to allow pilots to stay on the payroll only to end up being out on sick leave.

  16. @Tim Dunn, What do you mean an airline will “require” a pilot to work beyond 65? It is employment not slavery.

    Employers cannot make anyone work if they don’t want to. And if it is in an employer’s interest to have certain employees leave, as you claim, it makes no sense to even try to retain them.

  17. @ john

    “if it is in an employer’s interest to have certain employees leave, as you claim, it makes no sense to even try to retain them.”

    …unless it’s part of a temporary fix…need to delineate between long and short term fix, perhaps?

  18. @platy, Tim Dunn doesn’t want pilots working beyond 65. If the age limit is removed, those pilots, who Tim Dunn views as undesirable because of their high cost, can work for as long as they remain qualified and want to work. You can’t use age as a factor in layoffs or terminations.

  19. Pilots can retire at 60-optional to age 65. Some pilots go back to being senior first officers. The FAA could change the rule from 65 to 67 and allow the pilots to fly only in the right seat.

    US pilots do not use the term focused hours. The 1500 hour minimum is all about safety and absolutely should not be changed under any circumstance.

    Commuting is a pilots choice on time off which is not regulated.

  20. Pilots accrue sick leave at xx hours per month which accrue in a sick bank. Some airlines pay out the hours at retirement while others are sorry charlie you dont use them you lose them.. Go figure why there are more pilots out on long term sick.

    The airlines may try to get rid of thise on long term sick but its hogwash for anyone to think they are running off other pilots (not including during Covid).

  21. Thing 1, twenty two comments and not one airline has been called a dumpster fire . . . nor has immigration policy been invoked.

  22. The problem with too few pilots is because the airlines got rid of too many of them during the pandemic when taxpayer money was being given to them to avoid laying people off. The mandatory retirement age for pilots was created as a bona fide occupational qualification exception the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA). The exception was based on evidence that those over 65 were unqualified to fly commercial airliners.

    Saying that conclusion was wrong and raising the mandatory retirement age should also be predicated on evidence. As a group, older pilots are either qualified or they aren’t.
    A desire to compensate for poor hiring and staffing decisions by airlines is irrelevant.

  23. @john says, “As a group, older pilots are either qualified or they aren’t.”

    This is highly fallacious (all-or-nothing) thought, and it is sadly prevalent in western culture where the death of nuance has only been accelerated by the rise of short form social media. Some older pilots are very fit to fly; others are very much not so. Gary Leff’s proposal is to do away with a rigid threshold — this is something which, as a general matter across disciplines, is productive and improves outcomes.

    I have to chuckle at the imbeciles above who disparage Gary Leff. Let’s keep in mind that Mr. Leff’s primary job is not writing this blog nor selling credit cards (although the income brought about by such activity is so high that one would be a fool not to try). Gary Leff holds a Top Executive position at a prestigious research university in a major metropolitan area. What he says is intelligent and it holds weight.

    We have a pilot shortage. There are ways to increase the supply of pilots. Gary Leff has proposed one, and it makes a lot of sense. The rebuttals in this comment section are largely anecdotal personal opinions from people who don’t even have the testes to put their full names and headshots with their comments.

  24. @ Olaf

    “This is highly fallacious (all-or-nothing) thought, and it is sadly prevalent in western culture”

    Whereas your position may make sense, the blanket rule about pilots of 65 years (not flying international flights) is the stance of the Convention on International Civil Aviation agreed by dozens of countries, both western and non western, so perhaps this is not solely a western cultural issue in this case, whatever the nuances of the matter.

    FWIW one of the “rebuttals” to @ Gary’s position is quoted in my post above, and comes from Spirit Airlines CEO, arguably more qualified to provide an insightful viewpoint than anyone on this blog (even the “infallible” author of the article above!).

    “Gary Leff holds a Top Executive position at a prestigious research university in a major metropolitan area.”

    I’m not sure why you feel that is relevant? But since you raised it, FWIW the Mercatus Centre has a publicly quoted revenue of ballpark USD30 million (2017) (within the definition of a small business per the US Small Business Administration), some 2.3% of that of its parent university at USD1.3 billion. Please can we tread carefully down that path (or perhaps not at all?).

    “There are ways to increase the supply of pilots. Gary Leff has proposed one”

    More correctly, this solution has been proposed by Senator Lindsey Graham (as mentioned some way down in the article) by introducing legislation.

    @ Gary has taken a position (good old fashioned union bashing). He may be right. He may be wrong. But the problem is that he then theorises about “exclusion” and “bargaining power”.

    This then begs the questions;

    1) are the unions really to blame or are there other factors (airlines making pilots redundant during COVID perhaps)?
    2) what are the stated reasons for the opposition to raising the retirement age (are they reasonable or dumb? Clue – a letter was signed by multiple unions)

    The article is a biased opinion piece. That’s OK, it’s @ Gary’s blog, his choice.

    Let’s not pretend that is it anything more than that, shall we? Or that your local friendly CFO is necessarily an expert on a wide range of topics?

  25. @Olaf etc, As a group, older pilots are either qualified or they aren’t.” Sorry I wasn’t clear. There is no doubt that some pilots 65 and over are at least just as qualified as pilots younger than 65 and some aren’t. Age 65 mandatory retirement is a rigid, all-or nothing cutoff that Gary proposes to raise to some other unspecified all-or-nothing cutoff. The post is titled “Raise The Pilot Retirement Age” not eliminate the regiment age.

    The age 65 mandatory retirement cutoff was created as an exception the the Age Discrimination in Employment Act because it was determined that age is a bona fide occupational qualification for airline pilots. Other occupations also have age as an occupational qualification.

    Gary likes to point to Harrison Ford as an example of how age adversely affects pilot skills and judgement. Without some group mandatory retirement age public safety is at risk. Requiring airlines to make individual decisions about when a pilot is no longer fit to fly would be extremely difficult among other problems.

    Maybe age 65 was just a number somebody picked out of the air. Hopefully there was some evidence to support the underlying premise that, as a group, pilots over 65 are unqualified to fly commercial airliners.. Before changing the mandatory retirement age or eliminating it as you seem to propose, there should be due diligence on the effect on air travel safety. The mandatory retirement age for pilots should not go up and down to address fluctuations in the supply and demand for pilots.

    Gary is busy and has a lot good ideas. He can defend himself if I’ve misconstrued this.

  26. If pilots are 60, can pass medical certification, and want to keep flying, then let them.

  27. Why not make it more lucrative (aka less miserable) to become a pilot?

    The regional system and the career path to become a mainline pilot with decent seniority is awful. Only the most passionate and committed take on this challenge. For everyone else, most educated people would prefer a different career path.

    Increase compensation. Subsidizing housing to live near pilot bases. Reduce commuting and other non-compensated time one must be away from home to earn. Identify an ideal recruitment group (e.g., ex-military, engineers, technicians, STEMs degrees) and fast track them to positions at mainlines.

    It wasn’t that long ago that regional pilots were basically working for what most of us would consider to be poverty wages. And this is nothing to say about the poor workforce planning and routine downturns (e.g., 9/11, bankruptcies, COVID) that put one’s livelihood and family in a precarious state. While things have improved, they have not improved enough. There is still a shortage.

    Until the airline industry finds a way to address this, would-be pilots with options are going to seek other and better career options.

  28. @Jeff The fact that the most passionate and committed are the only ones that take on the challenge isn’t a bad thing… The regional poverty wages are a thing of the past (thanks to the very regulations that Gary is supportive of overturning because he’s so misinformed) and the road to get here is anything BUT miserable. The fast track to mainline carriers has been a thing for several years now and has worked well so that’s a moot point. Relaxing safety standards or minimum experience requirements is NOT the answer to the airlines’ current, self-induced struggle. They had record profits for years leading up to Covid and knew this day was coming long ago, they ALL failed to prepare. Let them now subsidize training costs from 0 time to ATP requirements and they will have their pilots. The corporations need to dig themselves back out of their hole and they should’ve been doing this instead of stock buybacks when they were flush with money.

    Also, to the pilot who can’t hack the training or meet the standards of a 121 (or any pax carrying) operation? Too bad. We don’t want you or need you flying our families when SHTF. Not Sorry, It’s tough on purpose.

  29. @Gary – Having problems understanding why you are advocating raising the retirement age on the same day you post an article about a pilot with over 20,000 hours experience wrecking an Airbus..

    Seems like a bit of a contradiction

  30. A lack of pilots isn’t the only staffing shortage the airlines must address. The public will still experience cancellations and delays if airlines don’t have enough flight attendants, mechanics, ground crew, dispatchers, baggage handlers, etc. Airline contractors and suppliers like caterers are probably in the same boat. With unemployment at record lows, solving the staffing issues won’t be easy or quick.

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