How ALPA Fought, Then Accepted the Age 60 Rule 

The 1980 Board of Directors' vote is still controversial among pilots.

By Gavin Francis, Staff Writer
Air Line Pilot, February 2005, p.18

For nearly half a century, U.S. airline pilots have pursued their profession with the knowledge that a federal regulation restricts them from flying as captains or first officers in FAR Part 121 operations past the age of 60. The FAA rule has prompted heated debate among ALPA pilots; and over the years, this has manifested itself in the differing positions that the Association has taken with regard to the regulation. 

Age 60 has been a central issue in the history of the Association, one that continues to shape the organization as it seeks to protect the jobs, safety, and benefits of its members.

At various times, ALPA has been on one side of the issue, and then on the other, as it struggled to deal with the difficult realities the government-imposed rule wrought on the Association's members and the profession. As ALPA wrestled with the best way to deal with the matter, succeeding generations of airline pilots molded the organization's position to reflect their own views on the issue. 

When the regulation was first proposed, ALPA fought aggressively to defeat it. After the FAA issued the rule in 1959, the Association initially sued the agency, claiming that the rule was outside the agency's rulemaking power. Additionally, ALPA argued that the rule was arbitrary and was not reasonably related to safety concerns. But the courts rejected all of the Association's arguments and upheld the rule. 

For two decades, the Association continued to challenge the Age 60 rule without success. 

Then in 1980, ALPA's Board of Directors, at its 26th biennial meeting, developed a new policy. ALPA officially reversed its position and accepted the rule, stating that no study had reliably demonstrated whether the medical fitness of pilots over the age of 60 could be determined for flight safety purposes. The BOD also approved a resolution that accepted retirement at age 60 for all flightdeck crewmembers, including flight engineers. 

At the time, many ALPA members felt that the Association's course reversal was necessary to adapt to changes in the industry brought about by the Age 60 rule. By 1980, U.S. airline pilots had been required to leave their Part 121 cockpit jobs at age 60 for more than 20 years, and retirement and benefit packages were negotiated based on that timetable. The practicalities of contract negotiations required that ALPA make some difficult decisions about the future prospects of its members. ALPA's Board of Directors responded proactively and voted to accept the Age 60 rule in the interest of preserving and maximizing the union's collective bargaining ability. New airline pilots who were just entering the profession also had an effect. As younger pilots, eager to advance in their airline careers, expanded the ranks of the Association, the resolve to get the rule overturned began to diminish.

Challenges to the rule 

Before the 1980 BOD decision, ALPA had spent a great deal of its time and resources trying to get the Age 60 rule overturned. During the rule's development, airline industry management groups and other organizations strongly supported it. The Air Transport Association, whose members include many of the nation's major airlines, favored the rule, as did the International Civil Aviation Organization. In 1978, ICAO adopted Age 60 as a standard for its member countries. 

But opposition to the rule was equally strong. ALPA, the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, and the National Business Aircraft Association all argued that it was discriminatory, and they all supported recurring legal, legislative, and other challenges to the rule. Before ALPA's 1980 decision, the Association urged the FAA to hold public hearings to establish a basis for revoking the rule. Such hearings were held in October 1970 and again in March 1977, but in both cases the revocation request was denied. 

While the FAA has admitted that the rule imposes an arbitrary age for prohibiting individuals from piloting large airliners, it has rejected numerous proposed amendments to the rule, as well as requests for exemptions from the rule. The law allows any interested party to petition the FAA Administrator for a temporary or permanent exemption from any FAA rule, including the Age 60 rule. Since the rule went into effect, many airline pilots have petitioned the Administrator for exemption. However, the FAA has never granted an exemption, and those pilots have fought to overturn the FAA's long-standing policy of denying all such requests. 

Challenges to the rule have usually relied on arguments that range from discrimination to economic hardship. However, to date, none of these arguments have proven successful either in the courts or in the legislative arena. 

The FAA argues that the rule does not violate the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA), which forbids age discrimination in employment decisions. ADEA provides an exception to the prohibition when age is a bona fide occupational qualification (BFOQ), reasonably necessary to the normal operation of the particular business. In 1968, the U.S. Secretary of Labor declared the Age 60 rule to be a BFOQ. Later, Congress amended the ADEA, and transferred enforcement jurisdiction from the Labor Department to the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission.In 1981 the EEOC rescinded the Department of Labor determination that the Age 60 rule constitutes a BFOQ.

In 1997, the Professional Pilots Federation (PPF) petitioned the U.S. Court of Appeals for a review of the FAA's decisions not to institute rulemaking to relax the Age 60 rule. The PPF argued that the Age 60 rule violated the ADEA because it requires the airlines to discriminate against older pilots. The group also argued that the FAA's reliance on an age-based rule was unnecessary to achieve the agency's objective of aviation safety. The court decided in favor of the FAA, stating in the opinion that the ADEA did not limit the authority of the FAA to regulate air carriers in the interest of safety. The decision essentially upheld the Age 60 rule as a BFOQ. 

The FAA also says that since the regulation does not prohibit pilots over the age of 60 from serving in other capacities with an airline (i.e., flight engineers or flight instructors), mitigating the economic consequences of the rule, the FAA does not consider the Age 60 rule to be a mandatory retirement policy. Additionally, the rule does not apply to Part 135 operations. This provides other employment possibilities for pilots who have reached the age beyond which they can no longer fly for the airlines.

National Institute on Aging study 

In 1979, the House Aviation Subcommittee recommended overturning the Age 60 rule by legislation. The recommendation reached the floor of the House, but intense lobbying against the measure successfully altered its content. When an amended version of the bill finally passed, it maintained the rule but directed the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to conduct an exhaustive study to determine whether mandatory retirement for pilots at age 60, or any other age, was warranted. 

In 1981, the NIH's National Institute on Aging completed the study, finding no particular medical significance for an age 60 limitation, but stating that age-related changes in health and performance could adversely affect aviation safety. 

The NIH study recommended that (1) the age limit for air carrier pilots-in-command and first officers be retained, (2) the FAA or other federal agency undertake a systematic program to collect necessary medical and performance data to determine whether the rule could be relaxed, and (3) the Age 60 rule be extended to all pilots engaged in carrying passengers for compensation or hire-specifically to pilots operating under FAR Part 135. 

In response to the study, the FAA published an Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPRM) on July 8, 1982, proposing a program to gather data to consider whether airline pilots should be allowed to continue to fly beyond age 60. 

The agency also announced that it was considering applying the rule to flight engineers. This proposal was initiated at the request of United Airlines, which was then fighting a court battle to enforce mandatory retirement of its flight engineers at age 60. 

But the ANPRM did not include the study's recommendation to expand the rule to include FAR Part 135 operations. 

On April 12, 1984, the FAA withdrew the ANPRM because it believed that, at the time, no sufficient means existed for collecting medical and performance data on airline pilots over the age of 60. Additionally the FAA concluded that, because of the lack of adequate data, the agency could not justify extending the Age 60 rule to flight engineers.

Hilton study 

Between 1990 and 1994, the FAA sponsored what is commonly known as the Hilton Study, a four-part study reviewing the Age 60 rule. 

Conducted by an independent research company, Hilton Systems Inc., the study tried to correlate accident data with pilot flying experience as a function of age. 

The study also included a bibliography of research relevant to the Age 60 rule, an extensive review of medical literature related to airline pilot age and performance, and an initial effort to develop objective measures of pilot performance. The accident study portion of the review concluded that the FAA could raise the age limit to 63. However, the FAA believed that the accident study had substantial flaws and never adopted its conclusions.

CAMI studies 

Between 2000 and 2003, the FAA, at the request of Congress, sponsored an updated four-part study that the FAA Civil Aerospace Medical Institute conducted. 

The CAMI study includes an annotated bibliography of age-related studies of pilot performance for the years 1990-99. The study also reexamines a 1991 Chicago Tribune report that concluded that the accident/incident rate had no relationship to pilot age. 

The CAMI re-analysis reached the same conclusion as the newspaper, but recognized substantial limitations in the newspaper's methodology and called for future comprehensive investigations and technical considerations to further analyze those investigations. The CAMI study also examined accident rates by age of pilots flying in FAR Parts 121 and 135 operations. 

In 2004, a further update to the CAMI study looked at the methods used in accident studies and concluded that the data are prone to errors and misinterpretation based on assumptions and filtering, thus bringing into question the results of the studies themselves. 

CAMI acknowledged that research on aviation safety outcomes in relation to age has produced mixed results, with some studies indicating a trend across age and others failing to detect any relationship of age to safety outcomes.

ALPA's position in the future 

The inability of any stakeholder to make significant progress toward changing the rule certainly had much to do with the Board of Directors' 1980 decision. In retrospect, the situation required that ALPA adapt to an industry that had already evolved and adjusted to the rule. 

Current ALPA members will very soon have their chance to weigh in as the Association prepares to poll its members about their views on the Age 60 rule. 

Age 60 has been a central issue in the history of the Association, one that continues to shape the organization as it seeks to protect the jobs, safety, and benefits of its members. 

To learn more about Age 60, visit and click on "In Focus: The FAA Age 60 Rule." If you have specific questions or comments about the Age 60 rule, please send an e-mail message to

1980 BOD Resolution on Age 60 

WHEREAS virtually all flight deck crew members now in active service have shaped their professional careers based upon retirement at age 60, and WHEREAS essentially required working agreements, seniority, and retirement plans have been based on that retirement age, and WHEREAS any modification of required pilot retirement at age 60 presents serious problems of undesirable impact in the areas of 

  1. medical standards and examinations, 
  2. equal applicability to all flight deck crew members, 
  3. job security, established job equities and promotional opportunities, 

THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED that the Association 

  1. Endorses required retirement age 60 for all flight deck crew members. 
  2. Shall take affirmative steps required to confirm such retirement age and that the same applies uniformly to all flight deck crew members. 
  3. Shall take action with respect to regulations, legislation, or otherwise to assure that there shall be no impairment of pilot rights in respect of medical standards and examinations, job security, established job equities, and promotional opportunities and that this shall apply equally to all flight deck crew members. 
  4. Rescinds all prior policy language with respect to mandatory retirement age. 

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that it is the policy of the Association that full consideration be given to the improvement of retirement and related benefits for flight deck crew members approaching or now on retirement. 

Air Line Pilots Association, International
26th Regular Board of Directors Meeting November 1980