Video: Seniors in the sky

By and NBC News
updated 1/30/2007 7:57:26 PM ET 2007-01-31T00:57:26

Airline pilots would be allowed to fly until they turned 65 instead of the current retirement age of 60 under a proposal announced Tuesday by the Federal Aviation Administration.

The revision was forced by a change in policy by the International Civil Aviation Organization, a U.N. agency, which raised the international standard to 65 in November. Since 1959, the FAA has required that all U.S. pilots stop flying commercial airplanes at age 60.

“A pilot’s experience counts. It’s an added margin of safety,” FAA Administrator Marian Blakey said Tuesday in an address to pilots and aviation experts in Washington. “Foreign airlines have demonstrated that experienced pilots in good health can fly beyond age 60 without compromising safety.”

The agency plans to take public comments and issue a final rule later this year, it said in a statement.

Disagreement over evidence
The proposal has divided America’s pilots between young and old.

Older aviators back it because they want to work longer after their airlines sought bankruptcy protection.

“Many pilots have taken huge penalties to their pensions, and this is a way to recoup some of that,” Carl Kuwitzky, president of the Southwest Airlines Pilots’ Association, which lobbied for the change, told The Associated Press.

Video: Should older pilots fly?

Older pilots say they are able to fly longer because they are living healthier to extend their careers, and they point to FAA studies that indicate that there is no risk to passengers.

“One day, you’re perfectly fine to fly the airplane. The next day, you’re over the hill,” said Jim Gorman, a pilot with Southwest who turns 60 on March 9.

However, the main pilots union, the Air Line Pilots Association, opposes the change. It is made up predominantly of younger pilots, and “much of our life is based on seniority and moving up to fly larger and larger airplanes,” said John Prater, president of the union.

Michael Boyd, an aviation consultant and former airline executive, disputed the FAA studies and said the agency was flying blind.

“A year and a half ago, they lobbied very strongly against the change,” Boyd, president of the Boyd Group, said in an interview with MSNBC’s Alison Stewart. “The FAA is getting forced into this” by the new international standard. 

“You can make the argument [that] people who have been in the cockpit for 30 years at age 60 are a whole lot more experienced than those who are 30 years old and have only been flying for 10 years,” Boyd said.

“But there’s never been any hard evidence either way to show that once you go over 60, there’s a material decline in your ability to fly an airplane.”

MSNBC-TV’s Alison Stewart in New York contributed to this report.

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