updated 5/2/2005 7:54:29 PM ET 2005-05-02T23:54:29

The Supreme Court on Monday declined to hear a pilot group's challenge to a federal rule forcing them to retire at age 60.

Justices let stand a lower ruling in favor of the Federal Aviation Administration, which says the retirement rule for commercial pilots is necessary for safety. Officials have argued that pilots lose critical cognitive and motor skills as they age.

The regulation, which was adopted during the 1950s, automatically bars airline pilots from flying after they reach 60, regardless of their health. A group of 12 pilots called that discriminatory and said their competency and health should be considered when deciding their ability to fly.

The pilots' appeal was backed by low-fare carrier Southwest Airlines, which argued in a friend-of-the-court filing that FAA data shows older pilots are "as safe as, and in some cases safer than, their younger colleagues."

"The 1950s-era age 60 rule, coupled with the FAA's rigid implementation of it, arbitrarily deprives Southwest Airlines of some of its best pilots at the peak of their careers," the airline wrote.

Earlier this year, the Supreme Court expanded job protections for workers age 40 and over by allowing them to file age bias claims over hiring and salary policies that disproportionately hurt them even if employers never intended any harm.

But the 5-3 opinion also granted employers additional defenses to ultimately win at trial by citing reasonable explanations for their policies, such as safety. In doing so, justices reasoned that age can affect performance in some occupations.

The case is Butler v. FAA, 04-1233.

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