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Too senior to soar? Airline pilot age restriction spurs debate

By David Armstrong

San Francisco Chronicle

Ever since he was a kid in St. Louis, Paul Rodgers Jr. wanted to fly airplanes.

His father was a pilot who ascended to the No. 2 job at regional carrier Ozark Airlines. After the son graduated from college, already an amateur pilot, he enlisted in the U.S. Air Force, flying missions over Hanoi during the Vietnam War, leaving the military after seven years. By then a seasoned pilot, he finally began flying commercial aircraft. Today, the 59-year-old San Rafael, Calif., resident is a captain with US Airways, with 24,000 flying hours to his credit, piloting big passenger jets across the country. But not for much longer. In March, Rodgers will turn 60 and he will, by law, have to retire.

Rodgers, who says he is fit and healthy, passing every physical and flying test, is campaigning, along with other older pilots, to persuade the Federal Aviation Administration to raise the mandatory retirement age, which has been set at 60 since 1959, to 65.

However, his drive is meeting substantial opposition — some of it from other pilots — who say that 60 is the right age to retire for pilots whose reflexes and skills are subtly beginning to erode, putting their passengers and themselves at risk.

The FAA says it is considering raising the retirement age, but has made no decision. An advisory panel report submitted to FAA administrators split on whether to revise the rule and made no formal recommendation.

“There is no conclusive medical evidence one way or another,” said an FAA spokeswoman. “However, the concern is that even an apparently healthy older pilot could have an unexpected medical event, like a heart attack or a stroke.”

Most countries have already raised the age-60 limit, in line with a decision late last year by the International Civil Aviation Organization — which sets international aviation rules — to allow one pilot in the cockpit to be up to 65, as long as others are under 60.

Rodgers and some of the other estimated 1,800 American commercial airline pilots who face mandatory retirement this year point to the international decision as confirmation that the medical evidence supports them.

“We are much healthier than the average population,” Rodgers said. “I test like a 40-year-old, and most of the guys do.

“When I started, the World War II guys were still flying,” he said of senior pilots in the 1960s. “They were chain smokers, drank hard liquor, never exercised. Now, almost no one does those things. Plus, we get random alcohol tests. We have to pass rigorous physicals twice a year from doctors who specialize in aviation. The FAA sends inspectors, unannounced, several times a year to sit with you in the cockpit.

“There are a lot of differences now from 48 years ago, when the age-60 rule started.”

But critics say the complex skills needed to safely pilot a jumbo jet degrade with age, often without pilots noticing.

The anti-60-retirement-age campaign has garnered political support from the powerful AARP, which views the rule as discrimination, and attracted passionate supporters such as Danville, Calif., resident Samuel Woolsey, who has built a Web site on the issue at www.age60rule.com.

Pilots are split on the controversial rule, which leads to sometimes-heated rhetoric.

The Air Line Pilots Association, which represents 60,000 pilots in the United States and Canada, campaigned to do away with the age-60 rule back in the 1970s on the grounds that it was not medically sound, said spokesman John Mazor. Its lawsuit went all the way to the Supreme Court, but the court declined to take the case, and the union, resigned, decided to drop the issue, Mazor said.

A recent poll by the association — which represents a wide range of pilots, from senior fliers to middle-aged pilots to newcomers in their 20s who are eager to move up into senior slots — found that members support the age-60 rule by a 56 percent-to-44 percent margin.

There are issues other than medical at stake, too, Mazor said — economic issues.

“There have been a couple of decades of argument over how to structure pension plans that account for the mandatory retirement rule,” Mazor said. “Over the last 10 years, an economic tsunami torpedoed pensions for most pilots.”

In line with this, the desire of some older pilots to keep flying past age 60 could be motivated by their need to earn money instead of luxuriating in what had originally been envisioned as a comfortable retirement, and now might not be.

Rodgers says that his pension has been cut by 75 percent at US Airways, which went into bankruptcy twice in the 1990s, merged with America West in 2005 and has made a $10.2 billion unsolicited offer to acquire Delta Air Lines. Rodgers has flown for US Airways since 1989.

However, Rodgers says, it isn’t mainly money that makes him want to keep flying. He just loves to fly and believes he still works at a very high level.

“It gets in your blood,” he said.

But some pilots say a love of flying isn’t enough justification to keep doing so indefinitely.

The Allied Pilots Association — which represents the 12,000 pilots at American Airlines, the only major U.S. carrier that has not slashed its defined-benefit pension plan — supports the age-60 rule.

“We view it as a safety regulation, and we think it is highly effective,” said Gregg Overman, the union’s communications director. Since the rule went into effect, he said, “not one fatal accident has been attributed to the (advanced) age of the pilot.”

As debate rages, the FAA weighs its options — and Congress ponders whether to intervene.

On Jan. 4, Sens. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.), Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) and James Inhofe (R-Okla.) introduced the Freedom to Fly Act. The bill would harmonize U.S. regulations with the international standard, allowing one pilot up to age 65 to fly as long as the co-pilot is under 60.

If the FAA is not instructed by Congress to change the rule, the agency itself will decide what to do — or not do. A decision will not come for some months, following a period of public comment, according to an FAA spokeswoman.

For Rodgers, who has just two more months to go as a commercial airline pilot, a rules change would probably come too late, as it might not be retroactive to cover retired pilots. So Rodgers is weighing his options, none of which includes leaving the sky.

He might hire on as the pilot of a fancy corporate jet, where the age-60 rule doesn’t apply.

In the meantime, he’s preparing to say goodbye to colleagues of many years standing, some of whom also face forced retirement in the near future.

“A lot of those fellows have asked me to fly their last flight with them,” Rodgers said. “It’s sad to see them go out the door.”

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