Thoughts on the new Age 65 retirement rule

Ever since the legislation was proposed, I have had mixed feelings about the new “Age 65” rule that congress recently passed, which now permits airline pilots to fly until age 65. The previous law required them to retire at age 60. An article in today’s Aero-News got me thinking.

About 50% of current airline pilots are over age 50. As a prospective airline pilot this is great news for me because, theoretically, in the next several years many empty seats will be opening up in the cockpits of airliners, which means job opportunities. In my mind, this is theoretical because the airline industry is in such a state of flux. Once the mergers and bankruptcies stabilize, and the majors shovel more flying out to the regionals, I suspect the actual number of available jobs will be small.

Now the airlines hate the new rule and I can see why. The oldest, most senior pilots are the most highly paid. Getting them off the payroll saves the airlines a small fortune. While dancing around the edges of bankruptcy, the airlines can use every spare dollar they can find.

But in ways I like the rule. These pilots have put in their time, and so long as they are healthy enough to do so, why not allow them to continue in the labor of their love? There is an added incentive for younger pilots to tough it out, knowing they can now earn a paycheck by flying for longer than ever before.

That being said, according to the aforementioned article, the way the Age 65 rule was written, older pilots (between 60 and 65) who have just retired don’t have the option to get their jobs back. I can’t imagine what it feels like to be forced out of your job with the knowledge that a new law meant to protect your job was about to be passed.

Unfortunately, now that they’re retired it just doesn’t make any sense to hire them back – from the standpoints of both business and fairness. Fairness dictates that, if re-hired, they go to the bottom of the seniority list, just like every other pilot in the business. At the bottom of the list one is generally on reserve and not doing much flying. By the time they got off of reserves, they’d be 65 and have to quit again.

The business side is a bit more complicated. The FAA doesn’t publish such figures, but I’m guessing that upon retirement many of these pilots never went back to flying, so before going back to work they’d need a new medical, flight review, and type ratings, and a fresh trip through their airline’s ground school. Months worth of work, even if fast-tracked. As the article points out, for the airlines to invest that kind of money into training just to get a couple more years of service from a pilot just doesn’t make sense. The same money could be used to bring a new guy up from the regionals who they can get twenty years of service from.

So while a select few get caught in the middle, the law actually benefits the whole of airline pilots. The main reason the Age 65 rule was even introduced was to compensate for the slashing of pilot pensions. The theory goes that the highest-paid pilots are those right around age 60. Give them an extra five years to sock away some of that $200,000 a year into retirement accounts so that they have the ability to retire comfortably. Makes sense on paper at least.

So I’ll have to disagree with Mr. Speace’s comment in the article. Nobody’s throwing airline pilots under the bus. They are the victims of a broken system – a system they’ve known was broken for decades. The system is slowly attempting to change, but change doesn’t come without sacrifice.

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