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For JetBlue Captain Guy Howes, his last flight summed up everything that is good about the airline industry, as well as the thing that troubles him the most.
The last flight occurred on Dec. 30, 2021, two days before Howes’ 65th birthday. That’s when he had to retire.
JetBlue let Howes set it up with his son Ryan as first officer, his origin as Boston – he wanted a good, long transcon flight – and his destination as San Diego, near his home.
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His family, an airline family, joined him. His wife, once a flight attendant for PSA, was a passenger. His older son, Ryan, 29, was the first officer. Younger son David, once a captain for the regional carrier PSA, could not join them. David died of a heart condition at 24.
“It was very emotional for me,” Howes said. “When you look over to the right seat and you see your son, he’s a man, but you also see the ten-year-old. And my wife, I met her in San Diego: We’ve been married 31 years, an absolute dream. (As for David,) when we flew over San Diego, I said to myself, David, I know you are there; if you’re watching us, I need you to help me do my best landing.”
Howes is based at LAX, but “I didn’t want to land in LA in a huge terminal where I didn’t know anybody. I wanted to finish in San Diego, walk away and drive home.” At SAN, Flight 619 ended at Terminal One, where Howe met his wife Linda in 1989.
The Boston-based pilots originally assigned to the flight agreed to ride in back so they could fly back to Boston the next day. But with the plane full, the captain gave up his seat for a passenger and spent the trip in the jump seat.
The flight was a little slow due to strong headwinds and a ceremony. The Airbus A321 departed Boston at 8:30 a.m. Headwinds meant the allocated block time was seven hours and 21 minutes, including about 15 minutes for the ceremony at the end.
The problem for Howes, is this: He would like to still be flying today, but the Federal Aviation Administration requires commercial pilots to retire at age 65.
Howes — cheerful and healthy, with 40 years of commercial flying experience — has a lot of thoughts about that.
First of all, he said, “I understand there needs to be a retirement age. I totally get it. We could have guys at 80 faking their medical reports. So there should be some cognitive and physical abilities that define when you retire, just like in any job.
“But in this job, you get to a certain age and you’re done and you have to walk out,” he said. “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).”
Howes is one of those pilots who loved everything about it.
“I loved ironing my shirt, starching it, putting it on in the morning and going to work,” he said. “Every flight made me feel like it was my first flight.”
Born in Cape Town, South Africa, he wanted to fly and he wanted to do it in the United States. As a youth, he flew C-130 cargo aircraft for a South African cargo carrier.
In 1985, he flew to Tampa, hoping to find work as a pilot. Initially, he found a job cleaning dog kennels. After six weeks, he was hired by regional carrier Henson Airlines to fly Dash 7s. In 1987, he went to US Airways. Based in Pittsburgh, he flew DC-9s.
A big year was 1989, when Howes met his wife, became a U.S. citizen and moved to the San Diego area. US Airways had just was using a San Diego pilot base after taking over PSA. In 1990, Howes moved to Charlotte. In 2003, he went to JetBlue and made captain in two years. He moved back to the San Diego area in 2006 and was based in Long Beach for JetBlue.
Howes is not sure what he will do now. He wants to stay busy and work in aviation.
Today pilots are in short supply, but neither the airlines nor the pilot unions want to raise the retirement age for pilots.
John Mica, the retired former Florida congressman who spearheaded the 2007 expansion to age 65 from age 60, said, “It’s very sad when you have somebody who still wants to fly and is experienced and probably very capable, but is arbitrarily denied the opportunity to work.
“Right now, we have an arbitrary figure which I helped set,” Mica said. “At the time, it expanded the pool of available pilots. I felt that having the best people with the most experience in the cockpit was a big plus. Now people are living longer and are in better health, and we should look at revising it.”
Mica noted that JetBlue backed his effort to increase the age limit while “some of the airlines fought it.” As for pilot unions, Mica said, “Sometimes, junior pilots don’t want the old guys to stay around.”
Said Howes, “I feel fortunate that it went to 65 from 60. That was a gift. But it’s still an age when you’re done and you have to walk out, and it feels like I never quite finished.”
Featured image by Guy Howes.
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