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Unsurprisingly, strong regulation in the aviation sector sets strict controls on airline crew. Age, health, and skills are well regulated and controlled. As part of this, commercial pilots in most countries must retire at 65 years old. There is advanced discussion in the US currently about extending this limit to 67 years, but it is far from certain that it will go ahead.

Regulated retirement age

For a long time, the guiding age for the retirement of pilots has been set at 60 years for single-pilot-operated aircraft and 65 years for multi-crew operations. This is specified in guidance from ICAO (The International Civil Aviation Organization). It is not a binding legal requirement, but instead, it is up to different civil aviation authorities to enforce (or adapt) into their own rules. Many countries – including the US, EU countries, and the UK – follow this guidance. Airline pilots therefore must retire at 65.

It is not just pilots that are regulated. Retirement age controls are even more strict for air traffic controllers. Those in this high-pressure role must retire at 56 in the US. Many other countries (including the UK and a large part of the EU) allow retirement at 60. Belgium goes even lower and mandates retirement at 55.

 

Increasing the retirement age

There are currently advanced proposals in the US to raise pilots’ retirement age to 67 years. Legislation has been put forward by United States Senator Lindsey Graham through the “Let Experienced Pilots Fly Act.”

This legislation would see US pilots continue flying until they reach 67. Pilots would require a Class 1 medical review every six months. There would be no other changes to training or skills requirements.

Interestingly, this is not the first time the retirement age has changed. Many forget that it was only in 2007 that the retirement age was increased from 60 to 65.

It is far from certain though that the legislation will pass into law, however, with many not supporting it. US transportation secretary Pete Buttigieg is one of these. He recently explained his thoughts that “the regulation is in place for safety reasons. I haven’t seen any piece of information or data that would suggest that the reasoning has changed.”

The British Airline Pilots Association is also opposed, citing increased costs to airlines and risks for passengers. There are commercial challenges too. If the retirement age differed from other countries, there may need to be restrictions on where older US pilots can operate. It would benefit domestic operations, but pilots may not be able to fly internationally.

Why control the retirement age

Critical to both sides of the argument is the reasoning behind fixing retirement age. There is much research showing the decline of mental and cognitive ability with advancing age – the question is how much this affects pilot’s ability in the age bracket in question.

There was early research into this (notably from the FAA in the 1970s looking at training efficiencies with age), but this was relatively simple. More recent studies have been conducted. A major study by US neurologists in the early 2000s looked at the capabilities of older pilots (between 60 and 69 years old). This showed that although mental function declined with age, the experience of older pilots more than compensated for this. This was a factor in the decision by the FAA to raise the retirement age to 65 in 2007.

A further study in 2012 in the British Medical Journal highlighted the rates of decline. It looked in detail at how the brain’s capacity for memory, reasoning and cognitive function starts to decline from around 45 years of age. This will likely be studied closely by those supporting and those against the raise.

Another important factor highlighted by the supporters is that aircraft are very different in operation from the 1970s when the original regulations were formed.

 

Is there a pilot shortage?

The main motivation cited for the potential change is the current pilot shortage. There has been plenty of discussion over the past years about whether or not there is a pilot shortage. Longer term, the situation is less clear, but it is generally accepted that there is at least a short term problem.

This is particularly acute amongst US regional airlines. They are being hit hard by less pilots entering the market (whereas larger legacy airlines have less of a problem as pilots are keen to move that way).  The US Regional Airline Association has stated that already pilot shortages mean that 500 aircraft (equating to a shortage of 5000 pilots) are not flying.

Globally and longer term there is support too. Boeing, for example, made a claim in July 2022 that over 600,000 new pilots will be needed between now and 2041. This is to both replenish retiring pilots and to meet expansion.

It is clear though that this legislation would make a difference. Senator Graham claims that over the next four years, 14,000 US pilots will be forced to retire due to age. Even if only some stay on working, it will make a big difference.

Increasing the retirement age is, of course, not the only solution to a pilot shortage. There have been calls as well to improve pay and conditions. This would help tempt new recruits into an expensive training undertaking. Sponsored training is a possibility too – and one that has been well used in the past. There were also previous proposals from airlines to reduce the minimum flying hours required by new pilots – this was rejected by the FAA in September 2022.

Final Thoughts

The bill so far is only a proposal. We will know in due course whether the US government and the FAA will officially increase the pilot retirement age to 67. It is important, of course, that these areas are strictly researched and controlled. Training pilots is expensive though, and it makes sense that, as long as fully capable, those that want to keep flying can.

 

 Sources:

US act: https://www.congress.gov/bill/117th-congress/senate-bill/4607/

Quotes: https://simpleflying.com/us-raise-mandatory-pilot-retirement-age/

2007 academic study: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/pilots-experience-compensates-aging/

Regional airlines quotes: https://www.npr.org/2022/08/10/1116650102/proposals-would-ease-standards-raise-retirement-age-to-address-pilot-shortage

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