ALPA Prepares to Poll Members on Age 60

Web-based survey to take place in March

Gavin Francis, Staff Writer
Air Line Pilot, March 2005, p.30

ALPA members will soon have an opportunity to voice their opinions on the Age 60 rule and mandatory retirement issues. The Association plans to conduct a survey of its members in March to find out how they view the long-standing FAA rule that prohibits U.S. pilots from flying as captains or first officers in FAR Part 121 operations past the age of 60. 

In September 2004, the ALPA Executive Board voted to initiate a communications campaign to educate the Association's members about the Age 60 rule, ALPA's position with regard to the rule, and the implications of any change to the rule. 

The input of individual ALPA members on this issue is crucial as the Association considers its position on Age 60.

The Executive Board also directed ALPA's President to poll the Association's members regarding their views on the issue. As the education campaign draws to a close, ALPA staff members have been working to ensure that members have the information they need to participate fully in the poll and that the polling process runs smoothly. 

Age 60 has always been a controversial issue among airline pilots, but discussion about the federal regulation has been especially fervent as those pilots who are quickly approaching retirement age struggle with reduced wages and the loss or drastic reduction of retirement benefits caused by the worsening economic condition of the U.S. airline industry.

In recent years, airline pilots have given up billions of dollars in pay and benefits to help save their airlines, and these pilots continue to suffer significant setbacks as airline managements ask for further concessions. 

In March 2003, more than 7,000 active and retired US Airways pilots lost their pension plan after the bankrupt carrier announced that continuing to fund the plan would result in the company's liquidation. While defined-benefit pension plans in the United States are insured by the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation, a terminated plan often means significantly reduced retirement benefits for plan participants. 

Competing airlines have suggested that carriers that are allowed to drop their employee pension plans have an unfair advantage in the marketplace, foreshadowing what may become a disturbing trend in the ongoing battle for airline industry profits. Some pilots feel that a relaxation of the age restriction would lessen to some extent the detrimental consequences of losing retirement benefits. 

Yet other airline pilots believe that a change to the rule would be harmful to the profession. Some pilots see a change in the Age 60 rule as actually limiting their income potential by delaying promotions as more-senior pilots work longer. Still others worry about possible changes to medical standards that may make it more difficult to work to age 60, let alone beyond age 60. 

How to participate in the Age 60 poll 

The input of individual ALPA members on this issue is crucial as the Association considers its position on Age 60. The information gathered from this poll will help to determine the future course of the Association on this issue. If you want to ensure that your voice is heard, you must participate in this membership poll. 

The poll, which will be conducted using web-based technology throughout the month of March, will include U.S. and Canadian members as well as currently furloughed pilots. An e-mail message with a hyperlink to the poll will be sent to all members in good standing whose e-mail addresses are on file. If you need to update your e-mail address, visit, enter My ALPA, and correct your e-mail address. Those members without current e-mail addresses will still be able to take the poll by logging into and following the link posted there.

Indeed, legitimate concerns exist on both sides of the issue. The poll is designed to assess these concerns, find out where ALPA's members stand on Age 60, and determine how the Association should proceed in the future with regard to the issue. 

Results from the survey will be reported to ALPA's Executive Board at its meeting in May. Over the past several months, ALPA has received hundreds of e-mail messages and letters from airline pilots in response to the Age 60 education campaign. Many have asked important questions about the Age 60 rule. Here are just a few of the questions we've received: 

• How soon could a rule change take effect?

A change in ALPA's policy on Age 60 does not mean that a change in federal regulations would necessarily be forthcoming. Only the FAA can change one of its regulations, and to make such a change, it would have to use a lengthy administrative process known as "rulemaking." If past history is any indication, the FAA is unlikely to be easily swayed from its current position. 

Congress could override the FAA by passing a law concerning pilot age limitations, and a number of bills on that subject have been introduced over the years. In late January, two senior Republicans, Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) and Rep. James Gibbons (R-Nev.), again introduced legislation (S.65, H.R.65) in both the House and the Senate tying mandatory retirement for airline pilots to the Social Security retirement age as defined in section 216(1) of the Social Security Act (42 U.S.C. 416(1)). At press time, no further action had been reported on these two bills. 

Rep. Gibbons, a former pilot for Western Airlines and Delta Air Lines, says that the Age 60 rule is outdated and that changing it would save jobs and help to retain experienced pilots. Several members of Congress have indicated that they would support such a rule change. 

• How might a change to the rule affect medical testing standards? 

The FAA has always maintained that the regulation is a safety rule based on age-related declines in health. The agency concedes that age 60 is arbitrary in that individuals experience these declines at different times. However, the FAA argues that medical testing cannot accurately predict how a pilot over the age of 60 would continue to perform in the cockpit. 

Those familiar with the FAA's arguments for maintaining the rule expect that the agency would require any change to the rule to provide for an equivalent level of safety. For this reason, pilots should not assume that medical certification standards would remain the same. The FAA could insist on more-stringent standards for medical certification. 

• Have ALPA leaders already made up their minds? 

No. While some pilots have suggested that ALPA leaders had already made a decision regarding Age 60 and that they initiated the education campaign and membership poll only to build support for their position, the diversity of opinion on this issue among your ALPA leaders is probably just as great as that in the airline pilot community at large. As your elected representatives, they will remain neutral, relying on the results of the poll to help determine the Association's future position on this issue. 

Throughout this campaign, Association leaders have endeavored to present information about the Age 60 rule as evenhandedly as possible, to educate ALPA members about the advantages and disadvantages on both sides of the issue. 

Once ALPA's members have spoken through the Age 60 poll, your elected union leaders will consider all available information in establishing the Association's future policy.