United States: airline pilots divided on retirement age

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After securing substantial wage increases for crews of major US airlines, the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) is leading a new fight against a US Congress bill to pass the retirement age of airline pilots from 65 to 67.

In a statement, ALPA said it had reviewed “carefully” the question and reaffirmed its opposition to a “arbitrary change” of the retirement age of airline pilots. “America hasn’t set the gold standard of aviation security by taking shortcuts when it comes to making meaningful changes to our complex, global aviation system“, denounced the union, quoted by the Reuters agency.

On the one hand, according to ALPA, this measure could lead to problems with airline scheduling and pilot training, and require the reopening of pilot contracts, as current international rules would still prevent pilots over 65 to make international flights. On the other hand, according to Congress, this pension reform project, and therefore the raising of the age limit by two years, would make it possible to align the retirement of pilots with the minimum retirement age at the federal level, age 67, which would allow them to receive full social security benefits.

At the american pilots, ALPA’s fight is not unanimous. Many older pilots are in favor of raising the retirement age. They want to work longer after suffering economic losses during the health crisis in 2020-2021 and various airline bankruptcies. They say advances in medical science have better validated the physical skills of pilots, citing Canada, Japan and Australia, countries with higher or no pilot age limits.

All airline pilots must undergo medical examinations every six months and those over the age of 40 must undergo an electrocardiogram annually. Additionally, all pilots have their skills assessed regularly in flight simulators to ensure they are competent. In addition, pilots are authorized to fly business jets and charter planes beyond the age of 65, so why not airliners?

Senior Drivers vs. young pilots
These senior pilots, who support the Congressional bill, accuse union leaders of ALPA and other unions of pandering to the demands of younger pilots. The latter fear that an increase in the retirement age will delay their career progress, with senior pilots still in service.

This is a coup of novice pilots against experienced pilotsAllen Baker, who retired as a United Airlines pilot in June, told Reuters. For its part, ALPA said its position on age was the result of a “democratic process” and reflected “willingness” of its members.

Like pilots, american airlines are also divided on the issue. Frontier Airlines CEO Barry Biffle says pilots should be allowed to fly as long as they pass their medicals, joining the International Air Transport Association (IATA) and the Regional Airlines Association (RAA) , who support a retirement as late as possible.

For Jonathan Ornstein, CEO of Mesa Airlines, his airline’s operations are suffering as it has lost 37% of its captains to retirement and attrition since the start of 2022.”If the regulations allowed it, I would take them all back“, he asserted. But for United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby, raising the retirement age would not solve the shortage of airline pilots. Last year, he estimated that 36% of his airline’s 64-year-old pilots were on sick leave, long-term leave or short-term medical leave.

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