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Amid pilot shortage, bill would raise retirement age to 67

July 27, 2022
5 min read
pilots in cockpit
Amid pilot shortage, bill would raise retirement age to 67
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Facing a pilot shortage, America's airlines could soon be employing older pilots.

On Monday, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, along with other Senate Republicans, introduced legislation that would raise the mandatory retirement age for U.S. airline pilots from 65 to 67. The legislation is simple and would allow pilots to continue flying until they turn 67, without any further medical or training requirements beyond what is already required.

The Let Experienced Pilots Fly Act is backed by the Regional Airline Association, the regional airline industry's lobbying group, as well as the National Air Carrier Association, which represents ultra-low-cost carriers and small cargo airlines.

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It's the regional airlines that have been hit hardest by the pilot shortage.

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More: How a pilot shortage could leave travelers with higher fares and fewer options

During the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, airlines offered early retirement packages to pilots and other employees. With air travel now rebounding, major airlines have accelerated hiring to replace the pilots who took early retirements, as well as the pilots who are just now turning 65. Regional airlines are experiencing significant attrition, with pilots leaving faster than new pilots can get hired and trained. Training backlogs at some regional airlines — which are tied to a lack of flight simulators and, sometimes, instructors — are further complicating the issue.

As a result, United Airlines and American Airlines have parked about 100 regional jets each in recent months because they lacked the pilots to fly them. Airlines have also stopped service in small cities; for instance, United just announced it's dropping a 25th city from its service since the beginning of the pandemic. American is offering massive pay hikes to the pilots at its three regional airlines in an effort to attract more pilots and, possibly, stem some of the attrition.

“Communities are losing air service, including those in South Carolina, and this new legislation allowing safe, healthy pilots to remain on the job is an important step that is needed to solve the pilot shortage,” Drew Jacoby Lemos, RAA's senior director of government affairs, said at a Monday news conference at Greenville-Spartanburg International Airport (GSP) with Graham. “The shortage has meant that 71% of the airports that have commercial air service have seen a decline in flights.”

Graham's legislation could have the effect of being a sort of bandage, freezing pilots in place and ending mass retirements for two years. It would have an effect similar to what happened in 2007, the last time the mandatory retirement age was raised from 60 to 65. Many midcareer pilots now look back to 15 years ago and believe their career advancement opportunities were paused as a result of that shift. For them, it meant five more years at lower-paying regional flying jobs, a five-year wait to upgrade to the captain seat or a five-year lock on a lower-paying fleet of aircraft.

The Air Line Pilots Association, the largest pilot union, has announced it will oppose the Let Experienced Pilots Fly Act.

“This legislation is yet another attempt to distract the conversation from the real issue, which is that some U.S. airlines have clearly failed to plan for the industry’s comeback that we are experiencing today,” ALPA President Capt. Joe DePete said in a statement. DePete and ALPA's national leaders have long denied there is a pilot shortage — an assertion many in the industry disagree with.

In 2007, ALPA supported the move to raise the retirement age from 60 to 65, a critical endorsement for the legislation that came after the union had worked with lawmakers on the bill. The 2007 law also brought the U.S. in line with international aviation standards promulgated by the International Civil Aviation Organization. The ICAO continues to recommend a retirement age of 65.

More: Should pilot retirement age be raised? JetBlue captain grounded after final flight with his son as first officer

However, for some pilots nearing the current retirement age, raising the retirement age to 67 will allow them to continue a career that they love; this is true of former JetBlue Capt. Guy Howes, who was forced to retire on Dec. 30.

Guy Howes, left, and his son Ryan Howes. (Photo courtesy of Guy Howes)

"In this job, you get to a certain age and you’re done and you have to walk out,” Howes told TPG earlier this year. “That’s terrible. I hate to sound like a crybaby, to say it’s not fair. But I keep fit. I’m in good shape. I would just like to see some other criteria (than age).”

Featured image by Corbis via Getty Images
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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