The U.S. and Europe have had a horrible summer with air travel. Travelers have faced widespread flight delays and cancellations as airlines, airports and air traffic control struggle to cope with rising travel demand with workforces depleted by employee departures during the COVID pandemic. To address the pilot shortage, a group of Republican senators and congressmen have introduced legislation that raises the mandatory retirement age for pilots from 65 to 67.
Reasons for the Pilot/Employee Shortage
Before Covid airlines had enough employees, including pilots, to operate their schedules. Now they don’t. So what happened? It is very simple and sadly quite predictable.
At the start of the pandemic, Congress passed bills making billions of taxpayer-funded grants and loans available to airlines. Congress wanted to avoid a wave of airline bankruptcies and shield employees from employment losses due to the sudden and unexpected reduction in the demand for air travel. Under the Payroll Support Program (PSP) in these bills, grants were only to be used to cover wages and salaries, and while receiving PSP grants, airlines could not reduce their workforces involuntarily or cut rates of pay or benefits.
There were three successive federal bailouts in 2020 nd 2021. Each bailout was a short term measure that expired after several months. (Apparently, Congress thought or hoped Covid was a short-term problem.) Airlines, which had been paying no federal taxes despite making record profits for several years just before the pandemic, drank heartily from the public trough. They accepted $50 billion in taxpayer money. No one was laid off or fired. The program seemed to be working.
But the airlines were smarter than Congress (like duh, right). Although they didn’t fire or layoff anyone involuntarily, airlines mandated reduced work hours for some and broadly offered incentives for employees to quit or retire voluntarily. In the face of threats by their employers to institute layoffs when each short-term bailout expired, many employees accepted the offers. According to a Washington Post article published in December 2021, the industry’s workforce shrank by about 42,000 full-time workers and 14,000 part-time workers as of the end of September 2021, when the Payroll Support Program concluded.
The reduction in force would not be a problem except that airlines optimistically ramped up their flight schedules to or exceeding pre-pandemic levels to take advantage of pent up demand for air travel when countries and facilities began to reopen. Airlines overlooked one minor detail — they no longer had enough employees to make their expanded operations work.
Mandatory Retirement and the ADEA
Currently in the United States, commercial airline pilots must retire from flying duties at age 65. The mandatory retirement age for airline pilots is an exception to the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA). The ADEA makes it unlawful to discriminate on the basis of age against any employee or prospective employee who is age 40 or older in any any term or condition of employment.
Airlines can force pilots to stop flying at age 65 because for airline pilots age has been determined to meet the bona fide occupational qualification (BFOQ) exception to the ADEA. Canada has a similar exception (bona fide occupational requirement) from its age discrimination laws and so does the U.K. (genuine occupational qualification). Other countries have similar exceptions to their laws.
A bona fide occupational qualification must be reasonably necessary to the normal operation of the particular business and predicated on reasonable belief that all or substantially all of the members of the affected group would be unable to perform the job safely or effectively, or that it would be impossible or highly impractical to deal with the class members on an individual basis.
As pilots age, eyesight, hearing, reflexes, memory and flying skills tend to deteriorate. Those things are fairly easy to measure through individual medical exams and check rides. A pilot’s decision making, judgement and analytical skills are much harder to determine and there aren’t bright lines along the continuum of abilities as to what is safe and what isn’t. Furthermore, such problems can be identified only after they have arisen to the extent they can be identified at all. That’s why airlines don’t even try and rely strictly on age as a BFOQ.
Now that we’ve covered the interesting history behind the pilot shortage and the boring legal theory of age discrimination, let’s turn to some of the pros and cons for raising the mandatory retirement age.
Raising the Mandatory Retirement Age Is a Good Idea
As someone who is older than 65, I’m against discrimination in employment based on age and favor increasing employment opportunities for older workers. Almost all pilots who reach 65 are capable and qualified to work longer. Older pilots usually have more experience. Experience can be important when dealing with emergencies and unexpected events.
Raising the Mandatory Retirement Age for Pilots Is a Bad Idea
- The effect on safety is unknown and hard to quantify.
While many pilots who reach 65 are still as good as younger pilots, some aren’t. As previously stated it is almost impossible or highly impractical to identify the point at which the effects of age jeopardize safety for each pilot individually. Recognizing the potential impact on safety, the proposed legislation to raise the retirement age includes a provision that those over 65 undergo a rigorous medical screening every six months.
But pilots who hold an Airline Transport Pilot rating, which is a requirement to fly commercial airliners, already receive medical screenings every six months. Moreover, there is little threat to safety from a pilot dropping dead or becoming incapacitated in flight.
Setting 65 as the mandatory retirement date was based on the premise that pilots over 65 presented a risk. If the mandatory retirement age is raised, it should be based on evidence that letting pilots fly longer presents minimal risk to safety. So far no such evidence has been produced to my knowledge.
One of the universe’s best and most famous pilots, Han Solo, a.k.a. Harrison Ford, is a private pilot who has had some harrowing incidents and near accidents that might be age related. He has also had some noteworthy successes. You can read about Han’s trials and tribulations here.
Bus drivers must retire at age 65 for safety reasons. If the mandatory retirement age is raised for pilots but not bus drivers, Congress and the Department of transportation are in effect taking the unusual position that it is safe for people to fly a passenger airliner at 65 but not to drive a bus.
2. Raising the retirement age probably won’t solve the pilot shortage.
It is not clear how many pilots will want to extend their careers beyond 65. Most of them are pretty well set financially and have already planned on retiring at 65. Plus, if they stay, they would have to give up the most lucrative routes and planes. International rules prevent pilots from flying international routes at age 65. B777 captains who are used to flying to Paris, Hong Kong and Sydney may have no interest in taking a pay cut, qualifying on smaller aircraft, flying to Peoria, South Bend, and Bakersfield, and bunking in Holiday Inn Expresses.
3. Even if raising the retirement age increases the supply of pilots, that won’t stop the frustrating cancellations and delays.
It is not just pilots, airlines don’t have enough flight attendants, ground crew, maintenance employees, dispatchers, and baggage handlers to handle the level of operations they imposed on themselves. Airline contractors are in the same boat as the airlines.
With unemployment at record lows and built in disincentives under many union contracts for former employees to accept reemployment, increasing staffing levels may take some time.
4. Mandatory retirement age is a safety matter that shouldn’t be messed with because of a temporary staffing problem.
A fundamental issue I have with raising the mandatory retirement age for pilots is the fact that it is being proposed as a permanent change to a safety regulation in a misguided attempt to address a temporary problem with staffing. Such a change risks undermining public confidence in air travel safety. Public confidence in the wisdom of politicians is already at rock bottom.
If it can be demonstrated that raising the mandatory retirement age will not adversely affect the safety of air travel, I welcome it but not as a solution for the problems airlines have caused for themselves. For the reasons stated above, raising the retirement age for pilots probably won’t substantially reduce the cancellations and delays that have been so frustrating for passengers and may compromise the safety of air travel.
Airlines need to cut back on their schedules. They should be happy to do so. With constrained supply and high demand, airlines can raise prices even more than they have already.
How do you feel about raising the mandatory retirement age for airline pilots? Would it affect your view of the safety of air travel?