Mandatory Retirement Age Debate Rages On

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Commercial airline pilot Joe D'Eon is having a bit of a midlife crisis. In less than 15 years, he'll be forced to retire, unless current FAA rules, which mandate retirement at 60, are changed. Joe says pilots' opinions on the mandatory retirement age vary, mostly according to how old they are.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Madeleine Brand.

In an era when people are living and working longer, commercial airline pilots are stuck at age 60. That's when the FAA forces airline pilots to retire.

Pilot Joe D'Eon has a podcast about his work flying big commercial jets. Now in mid-career, Joe finds himself on the fence about a proposal to raise the retirement age to 65.

Mr. JOE D'EON (Pilot): When you get onto an airplane, do you ever look to the left, into the cockpit, to check out the pilots? Well, a lot of people do. And when I first started flying as a co-pilot I used to wonder why. Finally, one day when some lady poked her head into the cockpit, I asked her, why do you do that? What she said was, well, I like to see that the captain is older, has gray hair at the temples, a receding hairline and a bit of a pot belly, so I know he's got a lot of experience. And I said, well, what about the co-pilot?

And she said, well, I want the co-pilot to look young and fit so he can take over if the old guy has a heart attack. I remember at the time thinking it was kind of funny. Of course, I was the fit young guy who was going to take over if the old guy keeled over.

But you know, it seems like over the years that joke has kind of lost its punch. Of course that might be because I'm now the older guy with the gray hair at the temples, the receding hairline, and a bit of a potbelly. But I do have more experience, and my experience level continues to grow with each passing year. But under current FAA rules, my collected wisdom is going to be cancelled out by the effects of aging when I turn 60.

Currently, every commercial airline pilot in the United States must retire at 60. Some people think that's too young. In fact, the FAA has already announced plans to raise the age to 65, but they have not yet announced the date when the change is going to take effect. If you ask a pilot what he thinks of the proposed rule change, you might get a different answer, depending on when you ask him. That's because a pilot's career is based on seniority. The only way to get that coveted left seat - the captain seat - is for somebody ahead of you to retire. The co-pilots I fly with remind me of this.

Mr. BRYAN FRANKS(ph) (Co-Pilot): Hey, come on, guys, give the other guys a chance. You had your time, you've made your money, you can retire now.

Mr. D'EON: That's one of my co-pilots, Bryan Franks. There was a time when I sounded pretty much like Bryan. Plus, I looked forward to taking my pension and retiring at 60. The only problem is we no longer have a pension to retire on, so we depend on our savings and our 401K plans. For many of us, the deadline, that mandatory retirement, comes too soon.

Mr. JOHN ROGERS(ph) (Airline Pilot): I felt pretty good about that until the retirement went away. Now I need to work past 60 if I could, you know, to support my family.

Mr. D'EON: That's John Rogers, a pilot who's less than a year away from his 60th birthday. I asked him what he plans to do if the FAA doesn't change the rule.

Mr. ROGERS: My wife keeps asking me that every day: what are you going to do? And I don't know.

Mr. D'EON: So older pilots want to stay, younger ones want them to get out of the way. But what about the people who fill up the seats in the back? One question you might ask is at what age is a pilot too old to fly for health reasons?

Dr. PRIEST(ph) (Flight Surgeon): Most pilots are perfectly capable flying to mid '60s. They're not going to keel over and have a heart attack on their 61st birthday.

Mr. D'EON: That's Dr. Priest, my flight surgeon. The FAA requires that he certify my health every six months, and Dr. Priest sees corporate pilots and private pilots too, and they can fly over age 60. So I asked him if he could remember the oldest pilot he'd ever certified.

Dr. PRIEST: Dr. Black, and he was like 90 when he was still flying.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. D'EON: Are you serious?

Dr. PRIEST: Yeah, right.

Mr. D'EON: Okay, wait a minute. Ninety years old? Now that raises another question. I mean, sure, a pilot might be physically fit to fly, so maybe he won't have a heart attack or a stroke in flight. But what about his mental ability to fly? When do pilots start to lose that mental sharpness they need to fly airplanes?

As I said before, corporate pilots can fly over the age of 60. My father-in-law, Jerry, is one of them. He flies a Citation jet for a company in Las Vegas.

JERRY (Pilot): Some pilots at age 45 can't fly worth a damn anymore, as you well know. And then there are others who can continue to fly well reasonably well. Like a friend of mine said, you're getting old, you can't fly. I said, yeah, I don't fly nearly half as well as I used to, but I still fly twice as good as you do.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. D'EON: Of course we have check rides every year, so Jerry wouldn't be flying now if he wasn't up to it. And he really likes flying. The day I talked to him, it was his birthday and he was getting ready to go fly, and that's exactly what he wanted to be doing on his birthday.

JERRY: Number 75. That's hard to believe.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. D'EON: That's right. His 75th birthday. And still flying. It makes retiring at 60 seem pretty early. And it makes you realize, since the ability to fly safely at any given age varies so much on an individual basis, picking an age for mandatory pilot retirement is a complicated issue. If it was up to me, I'd wait to change the rule into the year 2020. It's a nice round number. It has a good ring to it, and also, that's the year I turn 60.

MONTAGNE: That's airline pilot Joe D'Eon. You can listen to his podcasts at his Web site, flywithjoe.com.

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